As I write, my church choir is rehearsing for Christmas. I've literally got the sounds of the season ringing in my ears. Christmas is definitely coming!

Of course, the stores started their celebrating before they even cleared out their Halloween merchandise. This year, Black Friday started on Thanksgiving Day, a phenomenon that, quite frankly, makes me sick. Our culture is busy hustling and bustling, selling the heck out of Christmas, and seems to have forgotten that Advent comes first. See, Christians don't run into Christmas. We anticipate Christmas.

That's what Advent is all about. Anticipation. Waiting. Preparation. Advent heralds the coming of Christmas. It pushes pause and asks us to do the same.

Advent is a call to slow down and become aware of our world: the darkness that surrounds us and the light that breaks forth. The truth is, there is a lot of darkness in our world. To cover it up with the sugary sweetness of candy canes and gingerbread is to gloss over the pain that permeates creation. Our world is at war. The little town of Bethlehem we sing about is torn as the strife between Israel and Palestine continues to wreak havoc and destroy lives. To avoid the pain and head for the sales might be easier, but it's not what God intended. Advent is a time to honestly look at our lives, our world, the pain, the heartache and the violence, but it's also meant to open our eyes to the hope, the peace, the joy and the love that God reveals to us as true Christmas gifts.

This tension is rarely easy to hold. Perhaps this is why we rush to the stores and fast-forward to Christmas. However, when we balance Advent's call to examine our lives and our world, reflecting upon our past, experiencing our present and imagining our future, the miracle of Christmas becomes all the more powerful. Emmanuel is God with us: God with us in the mess, and God with us in the beauty. It's only when we take the pause that we are calm, quiet and aware enough to experience God's mystery among us.

Advent begins on Sunday. Relish the journey.

THE REV. SARAH HALVERSON is the pastor of Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa.