Tag Archives: Advent

The value of Christmas is deep and remarkable

When many of you read this, Christmas Eve preparations will have been made. Churches will be ready for you with multiple services; this annual event will be celebrated with great joy. Music, candles, pageantry, sermons and goodwill will herald the end of Advent and entry into Christmas.

Because Christmas falls on Sunday this year, some churches will not hold Sunday services. But, according to Christianity Today, “Eighty-nine percent of pastors say their church will hold services on Christmas Day. Leaders of Lutheran (94 percent), Church of Christ (93 percent), Baptist (91 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (91 percent), and Holiness (92 percent) churches are most likely to say their church will hold Christmas Day services. Pentecostals (79 percent) are less likely. Small churches and large churches are slightly less likely to be open for Christmas.”

Some argue against churches having Christmas Day services, especially when Christmas falls on Sunday, because Christmas Day is a family day. Presents need to be opened and family Christmas traditions need to be observed and perpetuated.

The purpose of Christmas Eve services is to celebrate the birth of Jesus in imaginative and multiple glorious ways. For many churches, these services are their most heavily attended of the year. Many evangelical churches now actively use them for evangelism, i.e., attracting new adherents. And what better way to use them. But for many, Christmas Day is an afterthought.

Be sure to check with your church to ensure it is holding Christmas Day services before going. Last week, over coffee with a pastor, he revealed he’d made the mistake some years ago of going to a church retreat during a weekend assuming all members would be there.

Unfortunately, no notice got posted on the church door. Upon his return, he discovered some people did come for a Sunday service and left with the impression the church was no longer in business. This also happened to me when visiting a local church. It turns out they were away at a camp meeting but the door had no notice of it.

Most Catholic and Orthodox churches hold both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. As always, it’s best to check church websites or call to ensure when services will be held. I fondly remember, as a then-member of the Anchorage Concert Chorus, singing for the Christmas Eve Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral several years ago.

It’s truly a beautiful service with brass, choir, organ, timpani and piano focused squarely on the birth of Christ and culminating with the partaking of Eucharist. To be able to participate in this “extracurricular” event was an honor I’ll always remember. This might be a good year to experience this beautiful Mass along with this elite musical group.

As a choir singer for most of my life, I can personally attest to the amount of effort church music directors put into the preparation of music for Christmas services. In some churches with large choirs, the choir itself can represent a sizeable portion of those present for services. Choir members invest significant amounts of time preparing for this special music, and enjoy the participative efforts of their singing.

Regardless of your faith tradition, I urge you to experience Christmas celebrations of other faith traditions. It always amazes me how rarely Christians allow themselves permission to experience Christmas through the eyes of another faith.

Maybe they are fearful of eternal damnation if they do so, or are so tied to their personal congregation that they feel nothing could be better. I’ve experienced Christmas in various areas of the world, and through the eyes of various cultures. It’s fascinating to do so, and gave me new insights and appreciation for practicing my own faith in ways that were enriching.

Growing up in a Christian family, even if we did not go to Christmas Eve service, we always commenced Christmas Eve festivities with a Gospel reading of the Nativity story. It’s an enriching story and needs to be read in its entirety to catch its fullness.

I like Luke’s version the best, and Luke 2 is the place to start. Matthew’s version of the Nativity starts at Matthew 1:18 and is preceded by the genealogy of Jesus. Try reading with some different translations to capture the scope and sway of the text. The King James Version, even with the Elizabethan English, still captures the imagination. These days I often enjoy the English Standard Version for its translation accuracy and beauty of language.

My experiences with Anchorage Christmas services have always been an enjoyable part of my church year. No matter where I go, churches seem to be on their best behavior during this time. Many years, I’ve gone to multiple churches to experience their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.

I’ve been particularly blessed when churches offer “Lessons and Carols” services during Advent or at Christmastime. I see that First Congregational Church is offering such a service at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Also, Holy Family Cathedral will be offering this type of service on Christmas Eve at 11 p.m. Zion Lutheran offers its own Christmas Eve service of “Lessons and Carols” at 7:30 p.m. These types of services are beautifully rendered with readings, carols and special musical presentations.

As I wind up my writing year, this will be my next to last column for the Alaska Dispatch News. Next week I’ll present my “10 Things I’d Like to See Anchorage Churches Address in 2017” column. My “10 things” columns at year’s end have been something I look forward to writing and will continue to do as I confine my church writing to my website, churchvisits.com. The site also contains all of my ADN blog posts and columns for the past eight and a half years, approximately 530 articles.

As we complete Advent and transition into Christmas, I wish each of you warm Christmas greetings. May the peace and hope brought by the birth of Jesus’ attend your ways at this time, and into the coming year.

Alaska Dispatch News uses Civil Comments. Please keep your comments on-topic, focus on the issue and avoid personal insults, harassment and abuse. Read the user guide.

Advent Music Here

Too many churches fail to recognize Advent by jumping into Christmas right after Thanksgiving and continuing the pattern of Advent and Christmas carols until New Year’s celebrations. Anchorage’s local classical music station KLEF-FM, 98.1, presents a wonderful sacred music program Sundays, from 6 – 9 a.m.  Host Jon Sharpe always seems to find sacred music for every mood and taste.

During Advent, Jon’s focusing on Sacred Advent and Christmas music. For 15 years he’s been producing a program on KLEF-FM 98.1 called “Sacred Concert”.  It airs every Sunday morning from 6 to 9.

His remaining December lineup includes:

European Advent and Christmas music will be featured on December 4.

Early American Advent and Christmas music will be featured on December 11.

An English Christmas Celebration will be featured December 18.

Christmas Day, “Christmas in New York”, is the special feature.

KLEF’s website is at http://www.klef98.com/. They also provide an internet streaming experience over the internet. (http://www.klef98.com/listen-live) If you are outside of Alaska, remember the time zone differences from your locality.

Thanks to KLEF, it’s sponsors, and Jon Sharpe for fine sacred concerts Sunday mornings. I’ve been listening for years and have never been disappointed.

Is Advent all that important?

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.

Orthodox Advent is almost here

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.

10 ways to make the most of this Christmas

As you read this, the Christmas season is approaching a climax. Before Christmas passes, I’d like to suggest a few activities to help make the most of your observances of this Christmas season.

These practices will, I believe, help make the holiday’s meaning and message more real.

“Christians celebrate Christmas because they see, in the person of Jesus, God’s reign in-breaking amidst the sin, pain, despair and seemingly endless cycles of violence in our world,” says Rector Michael Burke. “The traditional teaching of Advent is threefold: to prepare for the birth of the Messiah, in the form of the tiny Christ child, in a place known only to those for whom the world has no place (or ‘room’).”

Advent observers experiencing a period of watchful waiting for the Messiah may be better prepared than other worshippers to celebrate the birth of Jesus as an eagerly awaited event.

As you celebrate Christmas, use this time to share with those around you the good news of His wonderful gift of love and redemption. Jesus was mostly rejected by his own people, yet much of his brief ministry was directed toward casting out devils, bodily and spiritual healing, kindness to prostitutes, loving the unlovely, and giving hope to the poor. Gandhi is famously quoted as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Those of us who are Christians can remember this by opening our hearts and lives in loving response to the work of Jesus. Let’s share it with our children and everyone around us. Christmas offers many opportunities to do this. Here are 10 ways to restore the true spirit of Christmas in yourself, your family and friends and others.

1. Attend both a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day service.

Both are important. If you have children, look for appropriate Christmas Eve services. Many churches have them. They can be memorable for children and adults alike. A double-page spread in today’s Alaska Dispatch News lists many services offered by area churches. Personally, I’ve enjoyed Christmas services at St. John United Methodist Church, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe co-cathedral, especially the midnight Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

2. Read Luke 1 and 2 together with a group.

It’s a story where both chapters are important. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a wonderful film to watch on Christmas. YouTube has the poignant part where Linus recites the passage from Luke 2 for Charlie Brown to restore his faith in what Christmas is all about. Charles Schulz insisted this be included in the film.

3. Make snow angels outside with someone you love.

In doing so, remember the significant role of the angels of the Christmas narrative in Matthew and Luke.

4. Attend midnight Mass if you’ve never done so.

Like Easter, midnight Mass is one of the highpoints of the Catholic church year. Held at midnight, it rings in the true spirit of Christmas. Regardless of your faith, you’ll appreciate this special event. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church also has a service starting at 11 p.m., which culminates with candles and Eucharist at the stroke of midnight.

5. Invite a friend, regardless of religious persuasion, to join you at a service.

You’d do the same for them if they invited you to a meaningful service in their personal life. It goes both ways.

6. Extend yourself to the ‘beatitudes people.’

You know, the ones Jesus spoke of during his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, revilers and evil speakers. There are ways to reach out to every one of these. For example, there are many examples of the persecuted these days, such as Syrian refugees.

7. Ask any number of charities now if you and your family could help.

The Salvation Army, Bean’s Cafe, Catholic Social Services, Lutheran Social Services, Brother Francis Shelter, Downtown Soup Kitchen, AWAIC, Gospel Rescue Mission, Food Bank of Alaska and many others can make use of your monetary and other assistance at this time of year.

8. Share memories of Christmases past with friends and family.

Many of these memories are stories of hope and meaning that may die unless shared and maybe recorded for posterity. StoryCorps is a wonderful way to record these memories of a friend or loved one, which may otherwise disappear. Storycorps.org has an app available to download to make this easy.

9. Consider a monetary gift to an Alaska-based relief and development project in someone’s name.

Alaska Sudan Medical Project (alaskasudan.org) is one such worthy cause in South Sudan that is saving and changing lives in many ways. So is the Malawi Children’s Village (malawichildrensvillage.org). Both are spearheaded or strongly supported by Alaska physicians.

10. Call a long-lost friend to reach out in love.

Giving the gift of love is a virtually cost-free gift with huge dividends. Using Google or Facebook can facilitate your search.

Here’s my hope that God’s peace rests with you and your family as you celebrate the true experience of Christmas.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

What are we really celebrating at Christmas?

Let’s face it: Our stories about Christmas originate from the Gospels, particularly Matthew and Luke, but we don’t really know when Christ was born. Many scholars tend to favor spring as the most likely time of year. This is based on the account of shepherds watching over their flocks by night, something more likely to have taken place in spring than winter.

We probably celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 because of efforts by the Roman Catholic Church to co-opt pagan celebrations held around the winter solstice. It was also the birthday of Mithra, the pagan god of light. On the darkest day of the year, Roman pagans celebrated by lighting up the night with fires to repel the dark. Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival of Saturn, was also celebrated in December, with often-unrestrained merrymaking. Scholars believe elements of both festivals eventually became incorporated into Christmas.

Hans Lietzmann, in his definitive “A History of the Early Church,” writes, “The festival on Dec. 25 originated in the west, and undoubtedly Rome was its cradle. Here it was observed as early as A.D. 336 under Constantine. From that date onwards, it is mentioned wherever we are justified in expecting it. Epiphany was unknown in Rome throughout the whole of the fourth century, being observed for the first time about 450, when it was mentioned by Leo the Great as the festival of the ‘Magi,’ i.e., the wise men from the east.” Historian Will Durant, in “The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ,” wrote, “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it.”

Popular culture and Christianity have slowly developed traditions that don’t always correctly represent the facts surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, Christmas cards, crèches in homes and churches, and living Nativity scenes wrongly depict the Magi as being present at the birth of Jesus, though they did not arrive until sometime after his birth — possibly days or weeks later, or even longer. Scripture notes it was some time after Christ’s presentation in the temple. The shepherds came, but not the wise men. Likewise, the Bible doesn’t say there were three wise men, only that three gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh — were given.

During the Reformation, many reformers, including John Knox, John Calvin and Martin Luther, rejected the way Christmas was celebrated. Luther, a former Roman Catholic priest, did allow certain Catholic observances of Christmas, and is said to have encouraged the bringing of evergreen trees inside and lighting them with candles. Presbyterians, on the other hand, were a late holdout against the celebration of Christmas, and when Puritans settled in America, they initially banned its celebration (cultural suspicion of the holiday persisted into the mid-1800s in New England).

Gift giving, once a tradition welcoming in the New Year, slowly shifted to Christmas in the 1800s. In the last hundred years, Christmas has become a phenomenon of unrestrained spending to honor the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s even become an international sensation in countries with virtually no official tie to the teachings of Christianity. To me, it’s curious that religious leaders do so little to correct this orgy of spending, redirecting those energies toward the holiday’s true meaning.

I’ve visited many churches in town during this Advent season, an annual time of reflection and preparation of recognition of the birth of Jesus, and with only one exception, I’ve heard “business as usual” sermons on many different topics including parables or explications of passages of Scripture unrelated to the coming Christmas season.

Thankfully, one pastor mentioned “Advent Conspiracy.” Advent Conspiracy (see adventconspiracy.org) is a movement started nine years ago to correct the excesses of this season. Its website states these four simple aims: “Advent Conspiracy is a global movement of people and churches resisting the cultural Christmas narrative of consumption by choosing a revolutionary Christmas through Worshipping Fully, Spending Less, Giving More and Loving All.”

It’s simple and easily accomplished. Some families have written to me telling me wonderful stories of how Advent Conspiracy has changed their perspectives, helping them become better Christian citizens of the world, fulfilling the truth of the Gospel.

This contrasts with pollsters’ predictions that average American spending for Christmas will be $830 per family, with many spending over $1,000, the highest amount since the Great Recession of 2008.

Who hasn’t had a family gift opening with squalling children, hurt feelings, and a numb sense after the gifts are all open, not to mention mounting debt as a result? I’ve seen it many times; it’s not pleasant. Christmas spending is a huge shot in the arm for our economy, but wouldn’t it be better to more wisely use those resources during the year to recognize family birthdays in turn?

Christmas is “not your birthday,” as the Rev. Bob Mather of Baxter Road Bible Church reminds me yearly. For Christians, at least, it’s Jesus’ birthday — to be observed in a manner reflecting all the glory and praise back to Him for the marvelous gift of grace God gave a fallen world. (And yes, I realize practitioners of other religions, plus atheists and agnostics, observe Christmas traditions that have become a part of pop culture.)

Despite the misgivings outlined above, I think Christmas is a wonderful time of year to look forward to and celebrate the birth of Christ in Scripture, spoken word, and song. It is also the least invasive time in which we can invite friends and acquaintances to our place of worship to celebrate this joyous time. For parents, it’s a teachable moment when your children can learn about the beginnings of Christianity. Advent observance can also delve deeply into prophetic scriptural writings, words and music dealing with Messianic anticipation.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Three church visits on the first Sunday in Advent

Last Sunday was the first in the season of Advent. That morning I visited three churches along the O’Malley Road corridor. In last Saturday’s column, I mentioned that not all churches observe Advent, and on Sunday, I set out to visit several services to see what different congregations do during this liturgical season.

Amazing Grace Lutheran Church

My visits to Amazing Grace over the years have been satisfying, providing deep spiritual experiences. This time of year they offer three services: 8:15, 9:30 and 11 a.m. The sanctuary was decorated with white poinsettias, especially massed around a rough-hewn altar. An Advent wreath with four blue candles and one white one was positioned on the left. A trimmed Christmas tree was on the right side. Five banners hung from the large sanctuary cross, each spelling out one letter of the word “peace.”

The gathering song was “Prepare the Royal Highway,” a message of waiting for the Messiah. Not all music was traditional Advent music, but it offered distinctly strong theology.

The Advent candle for the day was lit early in the service, which was strongly liturgical; the first and second Gospel readings were from Luke 1, while the third reading was from Luke 2. Pastor Adam Barnhart’s message explored the readings from Luke within a personal story about how he asked his wife to marry him.

Communion was celebrated with the entire congregation present in a circle around the altar. At the conclusion of the Holy Eucharist, he prayed for all while hands were joined. Amazing Grace has always underscored the amazing grace we have. I enjoyed my visit immensely.

Cornerstone Church

My visits to Cornerstone have been pleasant and memorable. I especially enjoy the Rev. Brad Sutter’s preaching and I was welcomed warmly by greeter Mary Bolin. The 9:30 a.m. service started with the church’s talented praise band. They sang five contemporary Christian songs for about 40 minutes before the sermon. I felt the group’s volume — about 100-105 decibels, like many contemporary praise band churches — was unnecessary. Churches are responsible for the well-being of their congregants, and loud music threatens to damage listeners’ hearing. Congregational singing was drowned out, a common occurrence with loud church music. I estimated about half the congregants were not singing or were merely mouthing the words, in contrast with Amazing Grace, where everyone sang. The music was no different from any other time of year, with no Advent or pre-Christmas messages.

Sutter’s sermon was based on Romans 12:6-8, dealing with the gifts of grace. He noted he was following an outline he’d used before. Although well-delivered, it seemed repetitive and ran much longer than I expected. I had to leave before his remarks were completed to attend an 11 a.m. service in a nearby church. To watch his sermon, go to akcornerstone.org and click on “sermons.” Cornerstone does not observe the Advent tradition. When I asked Sutter, the church pastor, about this, he said, “We are flexible regarding the Sundays leading up to Christmas each year. Last year, during each of the Sundays of Advent, we did focus on a theme related to Christ’s coming.” This year, Sutter said, the church plans to explore the theme “Why Did Jesus Come?” over a series of services in December.

Christian Church of Anchorage

I attended Christian Church of Anchorage after hearing they planned to sing hymns. Indeed, when I arrived just after 11 a.m., they were singing hymns. Six hymns and a sending song were sung during the service. A group of four women, two men (one with a guitar) and pianist helped bring them alive. Unlike Cornerstone, you could clearly hear people joining in and singing these hymns. It was a pleasant experience and included some of the most recognizable music I’d heard that day.

The Rev. Deryl Titus’ sermon was based on the “60 Days of Celebration,” and drew from Matthew 1:18-25.

“Since Thanksgiving and Christmas are only a day each and they come and fade so rapidly, I chose to use the whole months of November and December” for the 60 days of celebration theme, Titus wrote in a subsequent note. “Every week we are realizing how to celebrate not two days but two months.”

At the conclusion of his sermon, Communion was served. I was greeted before and after service by a number of people. While not an Advent service, it offered symbolism prefiguring Advent. The service and sermon can be watched on the church’s website.

This trio of services on the first Sunday of Advent made for an interesting mix. I’d be interested in hearing about your Advent experiences.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Re-examining the meaning of Advent

This Sunday, Advent Sunday, signals two significant events in many denominations. First, the church year for many mainline denominations begins. Second, Advent begins: an annual period of about four weeks before Christmas, which for 1,500 years has been marked by fasting, repentance, hoping and prayerfully pondering the first and second Advents. Advent offers real meaning to the season, especially providing teachable moments for children and those new to the Christian faith. While Advent is primarily observed by Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as mainline Protestant denominations such as Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Congregational, other denominations are also slowly adopting its observance.

Sadly, for many Christians, Advent only marks the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when expensive holiday decorations go up in, on and around their houses. Then too, parents ponder, and often agonize over, what they are going to give family members and themselves for Christmas. The National Retail Federation survey for Christmas 2015 finds that holiday shoppers plan to spend an average $463 on family members, up from $458 last year and the highest in survey history. Average spending per person is expected to reach $805, with more than half of shoppers planning to splurge on non-gift items for themselves.

Contrast this with the loving charity embedded in Baxter Road Bible Church’s December giving program, where all church income is donated to those in need in this community. Pastor Bob Mather told me this week that, to date, $300,000 has been donated to “to help the poor, the needy and those going through a hard time.” Members suggest which local organizations receive this aid.

“We have found that the more generous we are, the better off we are financially,” Mather says. “You truly cannot out-give God.” BRBC’s program goes under the title “It’s Not Your Birthday.” That’s such an excellent idea. A few other local churches might designate one Christmas offering for this purpose, but December’s offerings? Incredible!

“The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable,” wrote Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While imprisoned in Germany during World War II, he penned some thoughts to friends reflecting on the Advent season. “It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.” Advent goes much deeper than much of what we see and experience in most churches.

Changing attitudes are slowly being seen in other denominations, such as Southern Baptists, where Advent is not a core tradition. Joe Carter, communications specialist for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, in an article titled “Southern Baptists and Advent: Four Things to Know” that acknowledges changing attitudes in that denomination, writes: “With the exception of Christmas and Easter, Southern Baptist congregations in America generally do not observe the days of the Western church calendar. Instead, they tend to follow the pattern of the Puritans, who believed following the liturgical calendar violated their liberty of conscience (many Puritans refused to celebrate any holidays besides the Lord’s Day). Some Baptist churches, however, have begun to incorporate Advent observance in their preparations for Christmas.”

Traditional Advent music looks forward to the coming of the Messiah, and a traditional observance of Advent avoids Christmas carols, which are are reserved for celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve. The watchful anticipation expressed in these hymns — such as “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” or “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” — is part of the attraction of Advent. From the perspective of one observing a traditional liturgical calendar, singing Christmas songs during Advent would be like a spoiler for a movie you were looking forward to seeing. Nevertheless, many congregations do so. Last year, when I asked a pastor why his congregation was singing carols during Advent, I was told they skipped traditional Advent hymns in favor of more cheerful music.

Advent sermons often address the key themes of each Advent Sunday: hope, love, joy and peace. They’re linked to the four purple Advent candles in a wreath of evergreen, lit in order each Sunday as a new theme is taken up.. On Christmas Eve, a white candle in the center of the wreath is lit to signify Jesus, the light of the world.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in a sermon titled “The What and the When of the Christ Child,” said: “People like us have careful work to do in Advent, to weave our way between two big dangers. On the one hand, there are dangerous people floating around the church who specialize in times and dates and schedules, who know with precision the time of Christ’s coming and who speak confidently of millennia and pre-millennia and post-millennia. … They know too much and reduce God’s freedom to the timetable of their ideology. On the other hand, there are dangerous people floating around the church who are offended by those people, and who in reaction are in love with their comfortable affluence and who imagine that it will not get any better than this, and who expect no gospel arrival at any time ever. People like us live in that awkward place amid those who know too much and those who expect nothing.”

Advent is a wonderful time to challenge and strengthen your faith and can be a useful force for sharing and Christian growth.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Observing Advent can help set the tone for a wholesome Christmas – 11/29/14

I’ve blogged about Advent in Anchorage for many years. Many pastors have shared their reflections about Advent on my blog, for which I am truly grateful. Last year’s theme was “Does celebrating Advent really make a difference?”

For example, recently retired Pastor Martin Dasler of Amazing Grace Lutheran Church offered, “If you long for a better world, a better government, a better self, Advent speaks to you. Advent is filled with redemptive desires and hopes. In a world filled with too much disillusionment and disappointment, Advent speaks to the profound desires of young idealists as well as to the lost hopes of crusty cynics.”

Rick Benjamin, former pastor of Abbott Loop Community Church and self-confessed “non-Adventer,” shared that “I really appreciate the logic and sequence of Advent: hope, love, joy and peace. Hope came from the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Love was the motivation for God sending his son. Joy happened at the birth event of Jesus. Peace is the result of his coming. I suppose this logic and sequence fits my linear way of thinking.”

Advent can be a time of great joy, infusing the church year with much goodness. With many religions it also signals the start of the church year. Advent, for centuries, has been observed as a time of watchful waiting, as Christians re-imagine the period of time prefiguring the birth of Jesus. In some traditions it was, and still is, accompanied by a period of fasting. Many traditions surround the observance of Advent with wreaths and candles of significance. Church historians generally date Advent’s observance to around the fourth century. More than half of Christian religions in America today celebrate Advent, with more joining every year. Advent seems to provide a helpful balance against the American penchant for observing Christmas as a commercial giving holiday that is generally directed more toward each other than toward humanity in general.

In Advent-observing churches, it is progressively celebrated for the four Sundays preceding Christmas with a theme, an Advent wreath and a candle of significance for that theme. On Christmas Eve, an additional candle, the Christ Candle, is lit celebrating Christ’s centrality to Advent. Advent tradition precludes carol singing until the Christmas Eve service. Instead, Christian hymns of watchful waiting are used. A good example of this is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Advent can be a wonderful time for contemplation, hope and blessing, as worshipers consider the true meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ for the world. Church attendance is not enough to reap the benefits of Advent. Many find that personal preparation, prayer and fasting help keep the mind clear and focused on the true meaning of Advent. Some Christians object to the observance of Advent because it is not mentioned in Scripture. Neither is the observance of Christmas, Lent or Easter, but that does not keep people from observing some or all of these Christian occasions. The venerable “altar call” so prevalent in some religions is not mentioned in Scripture either, but it is practiced every Sunday in many churches.

I’m captivated by a fascinating antidote to the crass consumerism of Christmas. Emerging in the past eight years, it is called the Advent Conspiracy. Created by five pastors, it imagines a better way of celebrating Christmas in communities. Embracing four tenets — worship fully, spend less, give more and love all — this marvelous idea helps reposition Christmas in extremely positive ways. The Advent Conspiracy is not a funnel for money. Rather, organizers direct individuals to work through their churches, using various suggested resources to support efforts to combat significant water and justice issues during the Christmas season.

Advent Conspiracy’s  well-designed website offers a few startling statistics.

29.8 million = Estimated people held in slavery today

$601 billion = Total U.S. holiday retail sales

$25 = the amount to needed provide a family of five access to safe water for a year

Many other ways exist to break the Christmas cycle of anxiety, spending, debt and hurt feelings, especially among the children. Personally, I admire Baxter Road Bible Church’s program of “It’s not your birthday, it’s Jesus’” for overall simplicity and focus.

Some families have adopted the practice of giving only gifts to family members and friends they have made themselves. The process is extremely enriching for the giver, especially as it simulates, to a degree, the gift that God gave us through his son Jesus. This is a practical way to model character-building behavior for your children.

As mentioned last week, most of our community nonprofit social service agencies desperately need funds at this time of year to continue their work. Don’t forget their needs as you plan your spending for this Christmas season. After reading that column, a friend shared that he and his wife were considering doing so this year, instead of pouring it into children and grandchildren.

Many churches will observe Advent starting this coming Sunday. A Google search turned up many congregations, and others will announce their services in Alaska Dispatch News’ “Matters of Faith” section in Saturday’s paper, usually just below this column. Most Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Moravian, Congregational and Orthodox churches offer Advent services. I recommend attending an Advent service if you’ve never done so before.  Please share your personal and observational thoughts about Advent services and their impact on you.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith.  You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.

4th Advent 2013 – Anchorage Presbyterian Fellowship – Disappointing Visit

Earlier in 2013, I experienced an encouraging visit to Anchorage Presbyterian Fellowship, a breakaway group from one of Anchorages major churches, posting that visit HERE. (Hyperlink currently unavailable) I revisited APF on 4th Advent 2013, December 22, as I always emphasize visiting Advent observing churches during December.

Still meeting at UAA, APF had moved to a larger recital hall, but the group appeared to be about the same size. This time no one greeted me, so I picked up a bulletin, and walked inside. To get to my seat I walked across the front of the hall, in full sight of everyone present, taking a seat on the right side. I joined in and experienced AFP’s worship service. All five Advent candles were already lit. Surprisingly, nothing was said about any of them or the significance of 4th Advent. For a former Advent –observing group, it was a bit of a shock to discover they’d dropped the Advent emphasis. They also appeared to have dropped use of the lectionary, the chronicle of Biblical texts and observations used throughout the church year.

The preacher that day was Rev Dave Bacher, one of ChangePoint’s ministerial staff. He delivered a fine sermon on the Parable of the Sower as described in Mark 4:1-20, titled “Four Types of People”. Although it was an excellent sermon, it did not tie to Advent in any way. Dave has been one of a number of visiting pastors APF has been using as interim preachers during their pastoral search. They were fortunate in assembling a number of good ones from various pastoral backgrounds and religions which appear to have served them well.

However, emanating from a major Anchorage church, APF members appears to have brought some of the same problems with them I formerly observed and blogged about, especially unfriendliness to guests. Their old church never demonstrated warmth or hospitality to me during any of my many previous visits. Churches that are warm and welcoming to guests generally have a track record of fast growth. This may be why it appeared the same number of worshipers were present during my 2nd visit to APF.

I hope their new pastor focuses on what makes a church outstanding and help APF members understand the value of extending oneself personally to guests as a church growth strategy.