The Threefold Significance of Advent
“Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors;
and the King of Glory shall come in!” —Psalm 24:7
“Public worship adjusts itself to the seasons of the church year; and this idea of the church year is worked out in the Hymnal both in the liturgical section and in that containing the hymns. …As the outstanding redemptive acts of God pass in review before our eyes in church year after church year, they invite us time and again to devout contemplation and to earnest application; neglecting the church year we would deprive ourselves of a most valuable element of religious instruction.” (M. Reu, Catechetics, p.374ff.). The season of Advent marks the beginning of the church year as we have it today. This season is comprised of the four Sundays immediately preceding Christmas, beginning with the Sunday nearest November 30th. Thus its onset may vary from as early as November 27th (28 days) to as late as December 3rd (21 days). Traditionally, the liturgical color violet (or purple) is used; but some have substituted a royal blue in order to distinguish this season from Lent and to stress anticipatory hope. The word “Advent” is taken from Latin and means “coming,” The purpose of the season is to prepare for the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and as such it is a time of penitence and prayer combined with hope and joy. During Advent we pray: “Oh, how shall I receive Thee? How greet Thee, Lord, aright?” (Paul W. Nesper, Biblical Texts; cf. also The Lutheran Hymnal, #58)
Lucus Lossius (1508-1582), the German Lutheran musicologist of the Reformation era, friend of Melanchthon, and editor of many music textbooks and of a famous Reformation cantionale, speaks of a threefold Advent: Jesus’ coming in the past as the Incarnate Christ and Savior, His coming in the present in the administration of the Word and Sacraments, and His coming in the future as Judge on the Last Day (See Luther D. Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, p.466). A brief review of the Advent hymns in our Lutheran Hymnal (1941) reveals that about one-third of them have all three themes (#56, 58, 60, 63, 68, 70, 74), and the rest stress the first or the second Advent or both. The historic Gospel pericopes appointed for the four Sundays in Advent stress the first Advent (Matthew 21:1-9; 11:2-10; John 1:19-28) or the second (Luke 21:25-33), while the Epistles contain texts pointing to the second Advent (Romans 13:11-14; I Corinthians 4:1-5; Philippians 4:4-7) more than to the first (Romans 15:4-13). In his Liturgy for Christian Congregations of the Lutheran Faith, Wilhelm Loehe has the following prayer that contains all three themes:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thou camest into the world in the name of Thy Father to be a King and a Justifier of many, even to save Thy people from their sins. Thou camest to Thine own, and they received Thee not. Wherefore Thou camest to us poor Gentiles, and still visitest us in Thy Word and Sacrament. O Lord Jesus, Thou Son of David, precious Savior, only Hope of mankind, blessed art Thou that comest in the name of the Lord. In Thee do our hearts rejoice, and all that is within us is glad because of Thy help and deliverance. Thou art He who wast to come, and we look not for another. Wherefore abide with us, and fill our hearts anew from day to day with Thy presence. By Thy Spirit dwell in us, that we may praise Thy holy name, as did Thy disciples and the people of Jerusalem when Thou enteredst in triumph. O blessed Savior, may we, with the faithful of all ages, remain steadfast unto death. And as Thou wilt return again at the end of the world to deliver us from all evil, grant that we may await with joy the time of our redemption, and watch and pray that we may be accounted worthy to escape those things which shall then come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. All these blessings we ask for the sake of Thine infinite love. Amen.”
In Psalm 24:7 we read this exhortation to the Church: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in!” The first stanza of Hymn #73 is a good commentary on this text as it stresses: “The King of kings is drawing near, the Savior of the world is here. Life and salvation He doth bring” in praise of God the Father, the “wise Creator,” who sent His Son into the world to be our Savior. In addition to describing the first Advent of our Savior-King, Hymn #73 in its third stanza also gives praise to the Holy Spirit as “our Comforter” through the Gospel of Christ, exhorting us to receive the King of Glory with wide open hearts through the Means of Grace, that the Holy Spirit may “guide us on until our glorious goal is won” (i.e. at the second visible Advent of our Savior).
As we are now “preparing for the holy Advent” (Dr. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, American Ed., Vol. 16, p. 40), we do well to consider all three “comings” of the Savior emphasized during this season in true repentance over our sins and holy joy and sure hope through the forgiveness of our sins in Christ Jesus.
Our first focus is on the original, historical Advent in the “fulness of the time” (Galatians 4:4) when “He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:6). The message of this first visible Advent and the purpose of the Incarnation of the Son of God is clear, as the Apostle Paul declares: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (I Timothy 3:15). May God ever move us to accept in God-wrought, child-like faith this faithful saying in direct application to ourselves as the chief of sinners!
Secondly, may each of us faithfully persevere in Advent faith through Christ’s spiritual Advent into our hearts through the Means of Grace that, as the Apostle Paul also says, “Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith” (Ephesians 3:17), for Christ in us gives us the hope of future glory by faith alone (cf. Colossians 1:27). Only through the Gospel in Word and Sacraments does the mystical, spiritual and invisible indwelling of Christ occur so that we may confess with Paul: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Thirdly, “if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10), and we are prepared to face the second visible Advent in joyful hope, looking for our King to “appear the second time without sin unto salvation” (Hebrews 9:28). This anticipated imminent second visible Advent will arrive so suddenly that our Savior tells us in reference to the final great signs of the end: “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (Luke 21:28). In that Great Day, we shall receive what we presently groan for within ourselves, the fullness of our adoption, “to wit, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23). As the Apostle Paul declares: “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able even to subdue all things unto Himself” (Philippians 3:20-21). At the second visible Advent, our status as God’s sons will be made manifest: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” (I John 3:2). Until then we live in Gospel hope and God-wrought patience (Romans 8:24-25).
“Lift up your heads” this Advent Season! Receive the coming Savior, the King of Glory, as He should be received in spirit and in truth! Be assured on the basis of God’s sure Word that the King, who came in the past, still comes in the present through the Means of Grace to prepare you for His future Advent! Unto Him who was, who is, and who is to come, the King of Grace and of Glory, be all praise and dominion! Amen.
—E. J. W.