Last year, people around the globe spent more than $15 billion on gift wrap. We wrapped presents for birthdays, graduations, weddings, and baby showers. We crisscrossed boxes with ribbon and stuffed bags with tissue. We sealed tiny packages with enough tape to encircle a truck. We wrapped at least one present not remembering whether we removed the price tag. We invested a great deal of time and money in what we knew would be torn off in a tizzy and tossed into the trash. Covering the gifts we give costs us more than a few dollars, but how does it make any sense?
It makes sense because wrapping presents is about more than decorating. Don’t misunderstand: we want others to appreciate the neat folds of our wrapping work. More than that, though, we want our fine decorating to create anticipation. We want to tie our gifts’ ribbons into bows and others’ curiosity into knots. We do more than wrap the gifts we give; we obfuscate them. We disguise their size and shape, and we conceal them with opaque papers and foils. Sometimes, we even hide them—in a jacket pocket or behind the Christmas tree. What accounts for the strange behavior?
We want others to enjoy our gifts and the opening of them, but we ourselves want to enjoy the time before, as well. We want to relish the moments, days, weeks before the first paper scrap falls to the floor. We want to savor the time when we know how special the gift inside the box is, but the intended recipient doesn’t. We care about wrapping presents because we care about stirring others’ expectations. We want them to expect that our love and affection for them prompt us to give them good things.
Advent’s four weeks of reflection and imagination create a similar anticipation. Advent doesn’t make us wonder what we’ll find in the manger on December 25th. Instead, it arouses our curiosity about the good God will do in the coming year because of that gift He gave long ago. How will He continue to touch, bless, and transform us and others and the world? As we learned last week, Advent shows us why we need Christmas. We’re sinners in need of salvation. Advent stirs our longing for Christmas, too, as a young child yearns to open the shiniest box under the tree.
One way Advent creates anticipation is by focusing our attention on Scripture. Advent reminds us that God speaks to us through His written self-revelation. It reminds us, too, that all Scripture points to Christ. The prophecies of the Old Testament and the fulfillments of the New, both point to His redeeming work. Scripture assures us that what sin rends, God mends, and He mends through means of His Word and Spirit. Hear how this traditional prayer for Advent II phrases it:
Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The prayer asks that God might grant us to be anchored in the surety of Scripture as we cling to the blessed hope. Note, though, that we can’t learn and inwardly digest what we don’t first hear or read. Scripture is powerful, transformative even, but it needs to get into us to do its work. One way to take Scripture in is to follow a reading plan. Some read from Genesis to Revelation, start to finish. Some read by author: Moses, David, Solomon, John, Paul, and the rest. Some read by topic, and some aim to read the Bible in chronological order.
Several church traditions give us another approach. They provide recommendations for what to read and when. The suggestions they make aren’t personal whim, but studied and collective wisdom. Pastors and theologians compiled the various reading plans. The tests and trials of time have preserved them. The passages paired in these reading plans complement one another, and they do more. They unite to tell a story, some profound truth about God and His love for His people. In many church traditions, this careful, ordered reading plan is called a lectionary. Consider, for example, this reading plan for the four Sundays in Advent, 2019:
You’ll notice that each week’s entry includes two readings from the Old Testament, two from the New. Once you read them, you’ll notice, too, that each week’s four passages revolve around a common theme. Further, the four weeks’ 16 passages weave a common thread about the meaning of Christ’s coming. Some of the readings point to His first coming, and some, to His second, future coming. All of them aim to strengthen our spiritual grip. All aim to spur us on to “embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.”
Daily or weekly devotions are already a part of some families’ routines. This isn’t true for all, of course. For those who would like to add them, why not give the suggested reading plan above a go? You could even intertwine readings, wreath, and prayer into a new tradition. Here’s a seven-day suggestion for the second week in Advent:
Everyone delights in opening presents, especially when they come from friends and family. Whatever’s inside, their gifts will be tokens of care and affection. Whether a gold ring, a warm scarf, or a simple something for the kitchen, a gift from a loved one says “I want the best for you.” For all the pleasure we take in opening presents, those who wrap and give them may take more. They know how their present will bless us and bring us joy. They also know the power of concealed gifts. More than paper and foil and bows, they are signs of love and promises of good things to come.
Advent is the wrapping paper on the gift God gives us every year at Christmas. Every year, Advent’s prayers and Scriptures and traditions can stir our anticipation. They can remind us of just how much God loves us, and they can make us oh-so eager to open Bethlehem’s box all over again.
Until next week . . .
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