Within the Church Year, the Festival of Christmas is actually celebrated on Christmas Day (as we will do tomorrow morning). The Festival of Christmas, like the festival of Easter, is celebrated with a vigil. The word “vigil” is from the Latin word meaning, “watchfulness.” Our English word “vigilant,” is a derivative of this word. As we have heard during the season of Advent, we were encouraged to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ and to keep watch—to be vigilant for the coming of Christ. Tonight, we see the culmination of the Advent season as we “keep watch” for Christmas Day.
In modern times, vigils have been used to commemorate or observe an important or tragic event or the death of a notable or significant person. They are usually celebrated in a muted and calm way, and often involve the use of candles.
In the Christian Church vigils have been used in very much the same way. However, the focus has always been and will always be on Christ. Traditionally the Christmas Vigil has been celebrated late in the evening in order that the end of the service coincides with the changing from December 24th to December 25th at midnight. Tonight, with Christians around the world, we gather once again at the Christmas Vigil, waiting and watching for the coming of Christ as a child in Bethlehem.
What’s the best way to prepare for his coming? It’s not with frantic doing. It’s not with a focus on what we have done or promise to do. It’s not with how we will pay back what he comes to bring. The best preparation for Christmas is a readiness to receive.
The Third Sunday of Advent was once called Gaudete (“rejoice”) Sunday, from the first word of the Verse of the Day: “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I say rejoice! The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4,5). In some parishes, including our own, a rose-colored candle is used in place of another blue or purple candle. This lighter tone is meant to “soften” the tone of repentance and preparation within the Advent season with a message of joy and expectation.
Since his coming is sure and so important, Christ sends out forerunners in the footsteps of St. John the Baptist who help us to make proper preparation for his coming. They do that with a message not their own. They do it with the message that he himself has given. Pay close attention to those heralds of the coming Lord, the prophets and apostles, and to the pastors and teachers in our midst who have succeeded them to get us ready for his coming.
Our King, Jesus, is coming. He first came with palms and the singing and shouting of the crowd into Jerusalem. He comes as a triumphant king, yet he is riding on to die. Through the waving palms and the crowded street we see the true willingness of our Lord to suffer in our place. Our King, Jesus, is coming. But now we wait for him to come on the clouds. We cling to God’s gracious love in Christ as we prepare and wait for the Savior’s return.