I grew up as an evangelical Protestant and my early years provided little exposure to the concept of Advent. Gradually, over time, I was introduced to it and now realize I’d missed much during those years.
I didn’t think Advent was important in those early years. In fact, I saw that Advent gave some evangelicals, who pointed to its absence from Scripture and its association with Catholicism, further reason to distance themselves from faith traditions that observed it. Now I believe Advent, properly observed, provides a buffer from the Christmas-driven consumerism that plagues so much of Christianity.
The term Advent is derived from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “arrival” or “approach.” It’s a term anticipating the coming of Christ at Christmas and marks the beginning of the liturgical church year in many faiths. Advent for Western Christianity starts with the Sunday closest to Nov. 30 and ends on Christmas Eve. This year, Advent begins this coming Sunday, Nov. 27. Several weeks ago, I described Orthodox Advent, which began for most Orthodox traditions on Nov. 15.
With the beginning of the liturgical church year, new lectionaries are used. Lectionaries are preformatted readings for the liturgical year and are released in three-year cycles: year A, year B and year C. Many liturgical denominations use the Revised Common Lectionary, which begins year A in a new cycle this Sunday with these Scripture readings: Old Testament (Isaiah 2:1-5), Psalm (Psalm 122), New Testament (Romans 13:11-14) and Gospel (Matthew 24:36-44). (The Catholic Church lectionary may vary from the Revised Common Lectionary, especially with regard to feast days.)
The beginnings of Advent are traceable to the fourth century as seen in some church writings around 380 A.D. Later, the Councils of Tours (563 A.D.) and of Macon (581 A.D.) laid out specific guidelines for observing Advent.
Today, Advent is observed somewhat differently in Eastern (or Orthodox) Christianity and Western Christianity. The Advent focus for Eastern Christianity is the Nativity Fast and the incarnation of Jesus, while Western Christianity is focused on the first and second coming of Jesus. During the four Sundays of Advent, Western Christianity uses a different theme each Sunday: hope, peace, joy and love. Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Anglicans, Lutheran and a few other denominations observe Advent.
Another Advent distinction is an Advent wreath in the sanctuary containing five candles. The encircling wreath represents the eternal nature of God, while the candles represent the light Jesus brought to the world. Each Sunday a new candle is lit according to that day’s theme, and the central white candle, representing Jesus, is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I look forward to each Advent Sunday and the lighting of the candle.
Some local churches have a family lighting the candles and providing the reading. Others have clergy doing the lighting and the reading. I’ve found both symbolically important but have been less than impressed when a priest or clergy merely lights the candles as an afterthought. If anything, the candles represent the light to the world that Christ brings and require an appropriately spoken word to encourage people to share that light.
Advent, traditionally observed, uses music that is distinct from Christmas carols. Advent songs are hopeful, watching, waiting songs that look forward to the coming of the Messiah. Examples include “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “O Come Divine Messiah.”
A few local liturgical church pastors have rebelled in recent years, jumping right into Christmas carols during Advent. By the time we truly arrive at Christmas, we’re already so saturated with Christmas carols and secular Christmas music from churches, stores, malls and on the radio that Christmas Eve becomes anticlimactic. Too many evangelical churches do Christmas an injustice by singing carols the entire month of December. The true theme of Advent is one of hopeful watching and waiting for the coming of the Messiah to be celebrated each Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This period traditionally incorporated prayer, some fasting, and preparation of lives and hearts for the coming of the King.
The colors of Advent, for most denominations in Western Christianity, are purple, violet or blue and are used in clerical vestments and sanctuary furnishings.
A hopeful sign of progress is that a growing number of evangelical pastors are beginning to observe Advent in more traditional manner, giving a new impetus to its embrace as they lead congregations toward Christmas.
For me, Advent offers the ideal antidote to the consumerism that has already hijacked Christmas and its meaning from the church. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber offers a startling perspective on Advent along these lines.
“If you use the lectionary the first two or three Sundays of Advent, you’re not getting shepherds and angels and baby Jesus,” says Bolz-Weber. “You’re getting these crazy apocalyptic texts like the one that says two people will be in the field and one will be taken and one will stay. That Jesus will come like a thief in the night. There’s something about seeing Jesus as a holy thief. Our first Advent together, I started thinking about maybe the idea of God breaking in and ‘jacking’ our stuff doesn’t need to be heard as bad news … There’s so much stuff that’s weighing us down that we actually need a holy thief to come and steal from us.”
Special Advent event at St. Patrick’s Parish
An evening of Advent music and reflections will be held at St. Patrick’s Parish on Friday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m. This will be their 10th annual benefit concert on behalf of Catholic Social Services for the Brother Francis Shelter. They are asking for a donation of $7 per person, or $20 per family, to attend. Donations of coats, hats, gloves, scarves, boots, pants, shirts, sweaters, socks, long johns — any warm clothing items — are also requested. I cannot think of a more appropriate way to observe the spirit of Advent than by extending ourselves on behalf of those less fortunate. For more information, call 337-1538.
Thanksgiving will be celebrated soon. This started me thinking about local faith community practices at this time of year. Last week, I noted Thanksgiving Blessing, a huge effort by the faith community and the Food Bank of Alaska. It takes many people to make this event a success and I’m thankful for those in our community who lead or participate in these efforts.
The story of the Pilgrims offers a teachable moment.
It’s a familiar story: After a harrowing transatlantic voyage and a disastrous winter, the surviving Pilgrims were grateful for the bounty offered by their first harvest and Native American neighbors.
Although Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, the story of the Pilgrims links it to American faith traditions. Few of us have ever suffered the privations they endured. It is a proper time to truly give thanks, and to teach others the spirit of the day. Some faith communities show their thanks by emulating that early Thanksgiving by incorporating those around them in that practice of celebrating and sharing.
The Pilgrims fled Europe because they were restricted in free practice of their religion, and sought to return to worshiping as they believed the early church did. I’m thankful for the four freedoms President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated in 1941 that symbolize what our country represents to the world: freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. These were artistically and forcefully expressed by illustrator Norman Rockwell in four paintings, used as covers for the Saturday Evening Post.
Many people in the world do not have these freedoms as we celebrate Thanksgiving. According to Freedom House’s 2016 assessment of liberty, “Of the 195 countries assessed, 86 (44 percent) were rated Free, 59 (30 percent) Partly Free, and 50 (26 percent) Not Free.”
Few non-Catholic churches in Anchorage seem to be offering Thanksgiving services this year (Most Catholic churches do offer Thanksgiving Mass. Check your local schedule for times.). I would guess it’s probably due to preoccupation by families with dinner, football, etc., but many people of faith have found value in using this day to take time to be truly thankful for the gifts God has placed in their lives. And a few churches are offering Thanksgiving dinners prior to Thanksgiving, but just a few.
Clear Water Church, First Baptist Church and Skilled Missions Alaska are embarking on an innovative approach this year. They will be ministering to displaced families with relatives in Providence Alaska Medical Center. They will accomplish this by providing a Thanksgiving meal and fellowship at the Walter J. and Ermalee Hickel House.
For those unfamiliar with Hickel House, it offers an affordable, comfortable “home away from home” for outpatients and their families receiving medical attention at Providence. I think this is an exciting opportunity to show some true Thanksgiving spirit. (If you’d like to participate, call Clear Water member Brian Whitson at 268-8659.)
Joy Christian Center is holding a Thanksgiving service at 7 p.m. followed by a pie social on Thanksgiving Day. It’s located at 4335 Laurel St. A few local churches are offering Thanksgiving services during the week, but I was unable to locate others offering services on Thanksgiving Day through an internet search.
Bean’s Café and Brother Francis Shelter will serve Thanksgiving dinners Thursday. The Downtown Soup Kitchen is closed on Thanksgiving Day. Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission serves Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday because People Mover doesn’t run buses on Thanksgiving.
Bean’s, Brother Francis, and the Rescue Mission would sincerely appreciate donations of items such as turkeys, canned vegetables, mashed potatoes, hams and yams to support these special events.
As you celebrate Thanksgiving this coming week, take time to consider things you are truly thankful for. The “Four Freedoms” are a good place to start. Whether or not you are a person of faith, Thanksgiving is an ideal time to pause and reflect on those things for which we are truly thankful.
Merton lecture series was well-attended
The recent Caroline Penniman Wohlforth Lecture Series held at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Nov. 4-6 was well-attended and introduced participants to the prayer and meditative concepts of Thomas Merton. Many people are seeking deeper spiritual relevance and time for reflection in their daily lives.
The Rev. Hugh Grant from Washington state delved into the life of celebrated Trappist monk Thomas Merton in a Friday evening talk to a capacity audience. The lecture, captured by church staff on video, can be viewed at St. Mary’s website. Grant summarized Merton’s life, writings, brief time in Alaska and his relevancy to our everyday lives.
Saturday’s lecture was a time of reflection, training in centering prayer, personal meditation, and practical instruction about how to slow down to perceive God’s speaking to us. Sunday’s lecture focused on observations about what nature can tell us, especially about ourselves.
Coming just days before the election, the lectures offered insights about how to deal with stress and contentious issues. Merton, writing about the spiritual life, said “We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.”
A key lecture topic was contemplation and centering prayer. Merton, writing on the subject, said, “Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration. All good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God.”
This lecture series was a gift to the community, and a good number of people took advantage of the opportunity. Thank you, St. Mary’s, and the Wohlforth Lecture Series.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.
Advent in the various Orthodox traditions is observed somewhat differently and at different times than Western Christianity. One significant difference is that Advent for Antiochian and Greek Orthodox begins Nov. 15, two weeks earlier than non-Orthodox faiths. Orthodox practice is to begin Advent 40 days before Christmas; this period is called the “Nativity Fast,” and comes before the “Nativity Feast” of Christmas.
Another significant difference is that the focus of Orthodox Advent is the incarnation of Jesus, while Western Christianity focuses on the first and second coming of Christ. Also, Orthodox ecclesiastical years begin Sept. 1, while in the West, the religious year for Christians begins at Advent, four Sundays before Christmas.
The Nativity Fast is not as strict as the fast of Great Lent and follows the Orthodox principle of fasting to prepare the body physically and spiritually for the coming feast. The practices of fasting include simplifying life, curbing appetite, controlling desires, and intensifying prayer.
Thanksgiving comes during this period and I wondered how Orthodox Christians handle it.
“Because we are American, and Thanksgiving is a national holiday, and a special time of gathering friends and family for thanking God for all our blessings, we have a pastoral allowance to stop our fast and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with the usual turkey and all the sides,” said Lesa Morrison, a member of St. John Orthodox Cathedral. “We do try to still remember that we are in Advent, and to not stuff ourselves completely.”
“During Advent, even though we live and move in a world that has highly commercialized Christmas, we can partake to some degree in the fun activities surrounding the Birth of Christ, while staying Christ-centered through it all,” says Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. “We are able to do this,” he continues, “because we willingly adopt certain dietary restrictions as a way of keeping us vigilant and aware of God’s presence at every moment.
“This is the point of prayer and fasting, and it is why Advent for the Orthodox Christians is a time of increased spiritual discipline — it helps keeps us centered in the midst of the craziness of the season.”
Echoing those thoughts, the Rev. Mark Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral says, “The usefulness of Advent depends on your perspective of Christmas. If the aim of a ‘holiday season’ is simply to seek cheer in winter through gift exchanges, office parties, and family gatherings, then Advent really has little place. The holiday celebrations can begin as soon as Thanksgiving is over and end in a party on New Year’s Eve.
“However, if Christmas Day itself is first of all a ‘holy day’ to remember the birth of Jesus Christ as God becoming one of us, then the grandeur and wonder of that singular event summons those who believe to prepare themselves through prayer, fasting, and acts of kindness, so that they might properly esteem and celebrate this day and let it change their lives. This preparation is the ancient purpose of Advent. Granted, it is difficult to go against the current tide in this regard, but perhaps even a modest effort to renew Advent among Christians could make the difference between a holiday that for many rings hollow and sad, and a celebration that brings true joy in the revelation of God’s great love for the world. If that is the case, it should be an effort worth making.”
Nearly all congregations in the Alaska diocese of the Orthodox Church of America (formerly Russian Orthodox) will commence the Nativity Fast on Nov. 28, and end it on Jan. 6, celebrating the Nativity of Christ on Jan. 7 according to Bishop David Mahaffey.
“The reason is the Julian Calendar’s timing being 13 days behind the Western/Gregorian Calendar,” he says.
This presents some difficulties for Alaska Orthodox, Mahaffey states. “In general, in our country, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one of family and company gatherings in celebration of the coming (what the word Advent actually means) of Christ. In Orthodoxy, periods prior to such a feast as Christmas are meant to be contemplative and inner-focusing on the significance of what is going to be observed. It is hard to do that when one is feasting and going to parties at the office or neighbors, or with family. This is why it is very difficult for the Orthodox Christian to keep true to his conviction of faith and still maintain good relations with those around him who are not observing the Advent season as he/she desires. This has led to a false dichotomy in which those on the Julian Calendar call Dec. 25 a secular holiday and Jan. 7 a religious one.”
Many Christians can learn much from Orthodox practices and observances. For me, it is pleasing to look at this early entry to Advent as an important antidote to the crass commercialism of Christmas.
Thanksgiving Blessing time is here for Anchorage and Mat-su
The local community really rallies to provide Thanksgiving meals for those without the ability or financial resources to obtain them.
“Food Bank of Alaska and the volunteer Thanksgiving Blessing leadership teams in Anchorage and the Valley are preparing to provide groceries for a complete Thanksgiving meal to 10,000 families this year,” says Karla Jutzi of the Food Bank. “A small army of volunteers will be handing out food at six locations in the Valley and six in Anchorage. Last year we served over 9,200 families.”
More than 1,000 Alaskans will prepare and distribute turkey and all the fixings to the 10,000 families Karla mentioned at two Thanksgiving Blessing events in Anchorage and the Mat-su region: from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 19, at six locations in the Valley, and at six locations in Anchorage and Eagle River from 3 to 8 p.m. (at most locations) on Nov. 21. The locations for pickup of the turkey and fixins’ are zip code dependent, so recipients should know that first.
For the past month, local food distribution programs such as Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, New Hope, St. Francis House, Salvation Army and others, have placed fliers with this information in food boxes they distribute. Call 211 with questions about hours and locations. You can also find detailed information available at the Food Bank of Alaska’s website or my site, Church Visits.
Thanksgiving Blessing is an annual event to give families a turkey and all the fixings for a Thanksgiving meal, especially for those who otherwise might not have the means to do so. It is sponsored by the Food Bank of Alaska and a number of local food pantries. I mention it in this week’s Church Visits C\column in the Alaska Dispatch News.
Distribution in the Valley will be on Saturday, November 19 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the following locations, and is zip-code dependent.
Why am I writing about Christmas now since it’s not even Thanksgiving? So many retailers have had Christmas items for sale as early as August or September this year. Plainly stated, it’s marketing greed in a rush to capitalize on every Christmas dollar to be spent. The time to plan for a proper Christmas is now, not later.
A small group of pastors made a positive step in addressing this issue a few years back, creating an organization called Advent Conspiracy. Their website clearly states their premise in just a few words. “Can Christmas still change the world? The Christmas story is a story of love, hope, redemption and relationship. So, what happened? How did it turn into stuff, stress and debt? Somehow, we’ve traded the best story in the world for the story of what’s on sale.”
That’s the problem, and the Advent Conspiracy’s solution is elegant. Its website offers a suite of resources for churches, parents and other individuals to address the problem of the abuse of Christmas as an orgy of spending for ourselves and each other.
Advent Conspiracy is focusing this year on water, noting: “Today, 663 million of our brothers and sisters around the world lack access to safe drinking water. What if the way we celebrate Christmas this year changes this? We continue to hear story after story of churches and families participating in Advent Conspiracy each year to conspire to spend less each Christmas and give in ways that collectively fund hundreds of life-changing water projects worldwide. This year, prayerfully consider including giving to end the clean water crisis as part of your Advent giving.”
Advent Conspiracy’s website offers several short videos which help to bring its focus alive. I urge you watch them.
Christmas, the highest holiday spending time of year, promises to be so again, almost eclipsing last year’s record spending. However, there are clouds on the horizon. According to Fortune magazine, “shoppers will rally after Nov. 8. Election stress is a real thing. And it could hurt retailers as the holiday shopping season gets under way next week.
A National Retail Federation survey found that a majority of Americans will be cautious about Christmas shopping this year, with many possibly pulling back on spending, because of anxiety over the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump presidential contest. What’s more, it’s hard for retailers to get a word in edgewise these days, potentially making their marketing less effective.” Christmas shopping is a nightmare for parents, driving many into debt and despair.
One local church has successfully addressed this problem for many years with its “It’s not your birthday” program. Baxter Road Bible Church began the program some years ago. It dedicates 100 percent of the income received during each December saying, “It’s our gift to Jesus because, after all, it’s his birthday we’re celebrating.” Last year they raised around $100,000 in December. The Rev. Bob Mather, senior pastor of the church, says the money “goes to the poor, the needy, and those going through hard times.” Much of it is spent locally.
The amount of $10,000 is dedicated to a Haitian mission the church has supported for years, vetted by one of the congregation. The focus of that mission is feeding and helping the poor, clothing them, and providing health care. The mission is led by a Haitian minister. I’ve been unable to locate any other Anchorage church that is so generous at Christmas. A few might dedicate one offering in December, or take a second offering for this purpose. Mather observes, “The more generous we are, the better off we are.” The faith and generosity of this warm group of Christians always amazes me. They walk the talk, and have grown rapidly as a result.
Christmas can be a teachable moment for parents with their children. I believe it offers families an opportunity to develop an awareness of the true meaning of Christmas, rather than a narcissistic display of spending that satisfies only ourselves, and does little for mankind.Other useful resources and film links about Christmas are available on my website Church Visits.
Anchorage’s next archbishop to be installed Wednesday
In August 2015, Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz submitted his resignation to Pope Francis I in accordance with papal law. After 14 months, an archbishop-designate for the Anchorage archdiocese has been selected. Bishop Paul Dennis Etienne was recently introduced to the community in a news conference. He is currently the bishop of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
His installation will be held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral at 2 p.m. Wednesday. The installation will be preceded by evening prayer at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Holy Family Cathedral. Both ceremonies are followed by receptions. (A copy of the official invitation is available here.)
The Mass will begin with Archbishop Schwietz presiding. The Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Christophe Pierre, will read a proclamation from Pope Francis designating Etienne as the new archbishop. He’ll then show it to the archdiocesan consultors for agreement. At this point Bishop Etienne is now archbishop and will be led to the cathedra (bishop’s chair) and be presented with the crozier. Bishop Etienne will then preside over the remainder of the Mass. Eight to 10 other bishops will be present, including all three Alaska bishops. It promises to be an impressive installation.
After the installation, Schwietz will have the title archbishop emeritus. He’ll continue to pastor St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River where he’s been pastor since his resignation.
“I leave with a tremendous sense of gratitude,” he told me. “The people have been so gracious, welcoming, and cooperative. They’ve been so caring for me. It’s been a wonderful experience. I lay down those responsibilities with regret but look forward to the leadership of the new archbishop.”
In anticipation of a full audience at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral, the archdiocese has announced the installation Mass of Archbishop-Designate Etienne will be streamed live online at CatholicAnchor.org.
Please click on the link below to view the official invitation to the installation of Archbishop-Designate Etienne. It’s complete, official, and quite beautiful.