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The horrors of Advent and the celebration of Christmas

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 18 December 2002

The season of Advent in the churches calendar occupies the four Sundays before Christmas, the liturgical colour is purple. This short season is a time in which the churches look forward to the birth of Christ, a time full of yearning. It is during this season that some of the great Advent hymns are sung, perhaps the most famous is:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here,
until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice, rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.


O come, O dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by your advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death dark shadows put to flight.

During Advent it is customary for all churches to read some very scary and disturbing readings from the bible. There are joyful predictions about the coming of the Messiah, but these are mixed with warnings of judgment and the end of the world. For example, the apocalypse predicted by Mark:

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. (Mark 13:8,9 NRSV)

If the reading of such texts is a preparation for Christmas, it is an entirely different event to that celebrated by most in our society. Old Testament passages back up this serious view:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
(Isa 11:1-4)


The readings for Advent go from bad to worse. It seems that we are approaching not the joyful season of children's faces, and eating and drinking with friends, but something more akin to a post-nuclear nightmare. Why is the coming of Christ framed in such terms? Why do we have to stiffen our sinews and summon up the blood as if a horror was approaching? Indeed, the coming of Christ into the world, an historical event that occurred more than 2000 years ago, and each year at Christmas, is a joyful event.

But it is not simply unalloyed joy. It also carries a message of danger and dread. It presages an agonized birth, wrenching and turmoil. It brings about the end of a world. That is what apocalyptic is about in the readings; God is going to come and make a clean sweep of the world.

But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13:24)

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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