Just like that, it’s the end of November again. And now we enter the Advent season, that time of Chocolate Countdown calendars, crowded shopping malls, endless online targeted advertising, and ever-earlier Christmas decorating. From mid-month on we’ve found ourselves in full-on Christmas mode, but for Christians Advent is something distinct from the “pre-Christmas” period that surrounds us.

In the Christian calendar, Advent is the beginning of the year, and consists of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Nobody knows exactly how the observance of Advent arose, but it was probably introduced as a season of preparation before Christmas, the great celebration of the incarnation of Christ, functioning for Christmas in a similar way as Lent did for Easter.

The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, and it simply means “arrival” or “coming.” And with Christmas right around the corner, the word “coming” might seem to have a simple and obvious meaning: the coming of Jesus as a baby at Christmas. But Advent means more than that. The equivalent word in Greek is parousia, which in both the New Testament and in Christian history usually refers to the Second Coming of Jesus—the day when he will return to us in power and glory to judge and reign in the remaking of the heavens and the earth.

Advent is a season, then, that plays on both meanings. In a sense, we do a little bit of make-believe: we set ourselves back into the time of that first coming, getting into a posture of hoping for God’s Messiah to come, for the Lord to intervene so that he can heal and restore the world. For a few weeks we act as if we are still the people of Israel waiting in the centuries before Jesus was born. Then at Christmas we allow ourselves to celebrate that coming as if it has just taken place that night. (Our childhood family friends’ practice of holding the baby Jesus out of their nativity scene until Christmas Eve was a way of practicing this same element of dramatic expectation.)

But during Advent we also recognize that we are still waiting. We look around and see that all is not well. We need the Lord to come and heal the world that we live in today. Day after day, week after week, we pray for God’s kingdom to come. We feel overwhelmed by our world’s problems. We wish things could be better, we beg God to make them better, whether in our personal lives or in the global challenges we’re all living through. As we feel those feelings and pray those prayers, we are participating in the “groaning” of creation that the apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 8. In Advent we have a chance to pause before we get to Christmas, to recognize that we are lot like those waiting people from the time when Jesus first came. In Advent we consider that we aren’t so different, waiting for his second coming, from those who waited for his first coming.

So what do we do at Advent?

First, we revisit the Old Testament prophets’ words that Christians later understood to point to Jesus. As we listen again to Isaiah and Jeremiah, Micah and Zephaniah, we find ourselves standing with a people in exile—the people of Israel in a period of desolation and heartbreak, in a world that no longer held together and a time that left them wondering if things could ever improve. And as we stand among the crowds the prophets address, we hear a double-sided message. There is comfort for a better day to come. But there also a word of correction, to recognize that there is guilt within our own life, together and as individuals, that must be faced, forgiven, and transformed by God into a new way.

We also return to the New Testament passages that speak about Jesus’ coming again. Sometimes these chapters attract us because we think that they are a code that will unlock future events. Sometimes they send us running because they seem so hard to understand. But both responses fall short of these chapters’ best use. Best is to listen to the notes that are struck there of both judgment and triumph, both confidence and mystery. As we used to sing in a Sunday School song, “Jesus will come again although we don’t know when.” A wise summary of a basic part of the New Testament teaching. The benefit of returning to the passages that promise Jesus’ return is that we do often need to be snapped out of the complacency we can be tempted by in this life. It’s easy to become so accustomed to the comforts of the West that we don’t remember that much of the world is in a poverty we can only imagine, or living under oppression that we wouldn’t dare dream about. The New Testament promises of both judgment and victory remind us that there is wrong that needs to be dealt with (in ourselves as much as in others) and oppression and powers that God is powerful to overcome.

Finally, in Advent we can pay attention to all of the places in the New Testament that speak of our daily life with reference to the coming Day of Christ. The apostle Paul’s wonderful prayers for his churches to grow and be strengthened day to day almost all mention the Day of Christ (Paul’s way of speaking of the second coming). He prays that they will be made “holy and blameless at the day of Christ.” Christian life—ordinary, everyday living for Jesus—is always a life in the light of Jesus’ coming again.

Advent isn’t totally distinct from Christmas. It’s because of Christmas—the truth of Jesus’ incarnation, his first coming—that we can have such confidence for the future. He has already entered into our world to share our plight. In his coming, he took upon himself all of our troubles in the great and completed work of the cross. He will not abandon us before the final triumph of his grace is seen by all. And that’s what is at the heart of our Advent longing and hope: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11).