Today marks the first sunday of Advent and the beginning of a new church year in the western ecclesiastical caldendar. (The eastern churches begin their calendar on 1 September, which is, of course, closer to the Jewish Rosh Hashanah.) Most churches mark Advent in some fashion, even if they do not follow the church year in its entirety. It is traditionally a season for fasting and reflection in the run up to the Feast of the Nativity on 25 December. It is a season of expectation with a double meaning. Liturgically we anticipate the initial arrival of the Christ child on Christmas Day. But in a larger sense we anticipate the second coming of Christ at the end of history.
Some of my favourite hymns are Advent hymns, which often carry both meanings within their stanzas. Even at other times of the year I find myself spontaneously humming or singing Advent hymns, probably more than those for the other seasons. Although this may not seem liturgically correct, there is undoubtedly something right about it, given that the time between the two comings of Christ is an extended Advent season in which our lives are lived in a spirit of constant expectation of the fulfilment of God's kingdom for which we yearn.
It is always a struggle for North American Christians to hold on to the spirit of Advent and to keep it from being overwhelmed by the pre-Christmas shopping season.
Here is one of my favourite Advent hymns, "Saviour of the Nations, Come," which is attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 397), and translated into German by Martin Luther in 1523 and into English by William Reynolds in 1851. My own arrangement of Johann Walther's haunting tune can be found here (© 2002 David T. Koyzis).
Saviour of the nations, come;
Virgin’s Son, here make thy home!
Marvel now, O heaven and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.
Not by human flesh and blood;
By the Spirit of our God
Was the Word of God made flesh,
Woman’s offspring, pure and fresh.
Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
Of the virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
Still to be in heaven enthroned.
From the Father forth he came
And returneth to the same,
Captive leading death and hell
High the song of triumph swell!
Thou, the Father’s only Son,
Hast o'er sin the victory won.
Boundless shall thy kingdom be;
When shall we its glories see?
Brightly doth thy manger shine,
Glorious is its light divine.
Let not sin o'ercloud this light;
Ever be our faith thus bright.
Praise to God the Father sing,
Praise to God the Son, our King,
Praise to God the Spirit be
Ever and eternally.