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If you want to have a big, meaningful celebration of anything, it takes careful planning and preparation. So, of course, such careful preparation is necessary to make our Christmas celebration meaningful. But I’m not talking about planning parties and preparing Christmas treats or even decorating the house and church. Those are all fine and enjoyable customs, but those are ways we express our joy in Christ’s birth, not how we fill our hearts with that joy.

It is not our customs and observances that elevate Christmas to its appropriate level. It is the other way around. The promise and the meaning of Christmas is what lifts our hearts and makes our celebration meaningful. That is why Advent is so much more than counting down the days, or a time to plan activities and make the needed preparations. It is a time to prepare our hearts to receive and rejoice in God’s Gift.

Four thousand years of waiting for the Messiah built a sense of longing and need among God’s faithful people. The prophets were sent by God to convict the people of their sins and call them back to the Lord in repentance.

The season of Advent is made up of four Sundays and emphasizes the need for repentance and forgiveness. It may seem to some that talking about repentance is a downer in this joyful” season. However, the greatest need produces the greatest joy when that need is fulfilled. When we see our great sinfulness and how that separates us from God and brings His wrath, then we will rejoice all the more to celebrate the fact that Jesus came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) What a reason to celebrate: that He willingly “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works”! (Titus 2:14)

Advent also focuses on God’s promises. Those promises fill us with confidence and security as we see God’s faithfulness in meticulously planning every little detail of our salvation to make sure that nothing could fail. Over three hundred prophecies about our Savior were all fulfilled perfectly. Can you fathom the depth of God’s love, that He would put so much thought and planning into something that cost Him so dearly and caused Him such pain and suffering? It was all driven by His love for you and His desire to make you His own. When we know the love behind the gift, that makes the gift so much more precious.

Advent also looks beyond the celebration of Christ’s birth to the promise of His return. We are not just celebrating a great event that happened two thousand years ago, but rejoicing that He came to secure our future—the most glorious future! As we see Him in the manger, that builds a sense of anticipation and hope, for that Child in the manger accomplished everything that was necessary to give us eternal life with Him in Paradise. He has promised to return so that we may be with Him where He is—in His presence, seeing His glory, and rejoicing in His love forever.

If you want a truly joyous, heartfelt Christmas, then take the time now to prepare your heart to receive Christ. Dig into the Scriptures. Contemplate your sinfulness and where you would be without Christ. Meditate on God’s great love and the sacrifice He made for you. And look ahead with joy and anticipation for the day when Christ will return, and we will have the fulness of joy in His presence, and enjoy pleasures forevermore at His right hand (Psalm 16:11).

David Reim is pastor of Saint Paul Lutheran Church in Vernon, British Columbia.