Christmas—and its ubiquitous cheer—is already everywhere. And when life is not exactly cheery, it can be hard to celebrate “Joy to the World.” That’s why pastor Louie Giglio, the founder of Passion City Church in Atlanta, is using a new book to encourage evangelicals to recover the church holiday that leads up to Christmas: Advent.
For most people, “Advent” means calendars of little chocolate treats behind paper windows, one for each December day until the Christmas morning. But Advent actually is a four-week liturgical period leading up to Christmas. It marks the start of the Christian new year, which this year started on the last Sunday in November, and is as important to church history as Lent is to Easter—it symbolizes a period of prayer and reflection before the coming holy day. Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Protestant churches tend to follow the liturgical calendar, and so they celebrate the four Sundays of Advent—each one has a different meaning, liturgy and Bible verses that go with it. Evangelical churches tend to have fewer ties to historical church practices, so the idea of them celebrating Advent is relatively new.
This year, Giglio is encouraging both his church and the broader evangelical community to spend time celebrating Advent as a way to build trust in God when times are hard. His message is personal. He wrote his new Advent devotional, Waiting Here For You: An Advent Journey of Hope, with a family going through cancer in mind, and then three months later, his father-in-law was given an incurable cancer diagnosis. “The word ‘advent’ means expectation,” Giglio explains. “It is building into our framework of Christmas the confidence that God is going to come through for us.”
Celebrating Christmas, Giglio says, is about more than just marking Jesus’ birthday; it’s also about remembering God’s presence in hard times. Jesus was born “on tax day to a couple that had the cloud of pregnancy hanging over their heads, a couple that was out of town and didn’t have money and in a cave, and was alone and afraid in the middle of the night,” he explains, recounting the narrative of Jesus’ birth. “We try to dramatize it a lot, but God really did come on the craziest day of all,” he says.
For many evangelical megachurches, where Christmas can quickly become about evangelizing, holiday performances, mission outreach, and extravagant nativity scenes, that spiritual message can fall by the wayside. But Giglio hopes that Advent can offer a new encouragement. “I don’t have a neat and tidy message of faith—it does not always work out the way we want it to work out,” Giglio says. “Christmas is a reminder that God is at work and those plans are still unfolding. … That is a miracle.”