Tag Archives: Advent

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.

3rd Advent 2013 – Christ Our Savior Lutheran

It’s always a joy for me to visit Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church on Old Seward just north of DeArmoun. I consider it a premier neighborhood church with a difference. COSLC’s liturgical order helps guests make sense of the worship service, as opposed to those many Anchorage churches who believe that’s “old style”, tossing service order out of the window. This leaves many guests wondering exactly what is happening. Linked to a guest-unfriendly service, guests quickly decide to not revisit those churches.

Pastor Dan Bollerud is an innovative servant who has unusual services, shaking them up, helping you understand the true purpose of specific church services. This service was not an exception.

COSLC is a warm friendly church that makes all guests feel welcome and part of the church family. One feels valued in this congregation. The service last Sunday was based on Isaiah 55:1-11 which recounts Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity.[img_assist|nid=163922|title=3rd Advent Candle Lighting|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=314]

3rd Advent Sunday’s theme was Joy. This service dwelt on the joy and restoration theme, in all aspects. The lighting of the 3rd Advent candle of Joy came early in the service with the congregation responsively saying
“Whatever we face in life, God will make joy possible. When we light the candle of Joy, we celebrate the One who has come, is coming, and will come again
.”
Two young acolytes lit the candle of Joy as Pastor Dan led the readings.[img_assist|nid=163923|title=Pastor Dan Bollerud Preaching|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=467]

During the service a number of Advent hymns were sung by the smaller-than-usual congregation, no doubt daunted by the heavy snowfall we received last Saturday. Pastor Bollerud’s theme dwelt heavily on the key texts cited in Isaiah 55.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come buy and eat!
Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.

Bollerud then extended God’s invitation to the communion table in an unusual exercise of devotion to God’s liberating gift. The communion tables were supplied with bread, wine, sparkling cider, and sweet breads. We were invited to partake of the Lord’s Supper in the same manner Jesus asked us to in remembrance of him. The congregation was asked to serve each other in “body and bread” language, e.g “The body of Christ, broken for you”, “The blood of Christ, shed for your sins”. In all of my years of church-going, this was certainly one of the most memorable communions I’ve had. We lose so much in our services by doing the same thing, in the same way, for years. Our beliefs need to be infused with new experiences from time to time. It truly awakens us to a different perspective on our beliefs.

I highly recommend Christ Our Savior Lutheran for its constantly challenging perspective of examining our beliefs, the warm and engaging members, and Pastor Dan Bollerud who walks with them as friend, and leader.

Advent Reflection – Pastor Steven Vicaro

This Advent I’ve asked a cross-section of Anchorage pastors, representing a variety of faith traditions, to submit a brief Advent Reflection under this year’s theme: “Does Celebrating Advent Really Make a Difference?”

The next pastor to be featured is Stephen Vicaro, Pastor of the Hillside-O’Malley SDA Church. Stephen comes from a non-Advent celebrating tradition.[img_assist|nid=163916|title=Pastor Stephen Vicaro, Hillside O’Malley SDA Church|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=403]

Does Celebrating Advent Really Make a Difference?

I would have to say a resounding “Yes!” There are at least three great events in Christian history that should be celebrated whole-heartedly by the church: 1) Christ’s First Advent, 2) The Crucifixion, and 3) Christ’s Second Advent (still in the future).

All three of these events represent the giving nature of God. With the first Advent God gave His own Son to the human race, to be One of us, or as the Bible puts it, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). With the Crucifixion, Christ gave Himself as the ultimate Sacrifice on our behalf. He made atonement (or at-one-ment) for our sins, that He might save us from our sins. With the Second Advent, God will give us eternal life in its completed form. Speaking of the redeemed, Revelation 21:3 declares, “God Himself will be with them and be their God.” All of these greatest of events in human history have to do with God giving to each of us the opportunity to be reunited with the Creator God of the universe. That’s a reason to celebrate!

To be clear, there is nothing special about the particular time of year, nor the date December 25. Many Christians know that Jesus was not born in the Winter, but in the Fall. Though there is merit in all of Christendom celebrating in unison the birth of our Lord, it is important to remember that Jesus, the Gift, is the focal point, not the date or the time of year.

Our secular culture celebrates Christmas, not as a recognition of God’s Gift, but of materialism and the “spirit of Christmas.” Our culture has put a magical mystique to December 25 that has more to do with reindeer and elves than with the baby Jesus. I think that this is why God distinctly excluded the exact date from the Scriptures. He didn’t want us to view the birthday as more important than the One born on the day.

For example, in John 11, when Jesus approached Bethany on His way to resurrecting Lazarus, we find this dialogue:

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

24 Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live…”

Martha had misunderstood the Scriptures teaching about the resurrection. She wrongly understood that the resurrection would happen on a certain day, and that was wherein her brother’s hope lie. Jesus had to explain to her that it wasn’t the “day” that would bring about Lazarus’ restoration of life, but it was Jesus, Himself, that would resurrect him.

In the same way, as we commemorate the First Advent, let us remember that it is Christ, Himself, that is to be celebrated.

Advent Reflection – Pastor Rick Benjamin

This Advent I’ve asked a cross-section of Anchorage pastors, representing a variety of faith traditions, to submit a brief Advent Reflection under this year’s theme: “Does Celebrating Advent Really Make a Difference?”

The next pastor to be featured is Rick Benjamin, former Sr. Pastor of Abbott Loop Community Church. He is now is the Director of Organizational and Spiritual Wellness at Hope Community Resources.

An Advent Reflection from a “Non-Adventer”

Our church and my heritage are in the Protestant/evangelical/Pentecostal tradition of the Christian faith. We did not follow the liturgical calendar; we didn’t even have services on Good Friday. (We were somewhat religious about how non-religious we were!) So we did not follow the tradition of Advent. I knew the word “advent” meant “coming,” but that was usually applied to the Second Coming of Jesus. Of course we had our own church and family traditions for celebrating Christmas.

Along the way God has blessed me with many new friends and colleagues in the broader body of Christ. Through these relationships I became aware and intrigued by the liturgical calendar and I learned about Advent. A year ago I was guest speaking for a new church that followed Advent. To do those messages I learned about the four Sundays of Advent, the candles and the colors.

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.

I also appreciate the anticipation through the month, leading up to Christmas. I learned that Advent can even be a “mini-Lent,” a time of fasting and self-denial. One Advent expression I still don’t understand is “preparing ourselves for the coming of the Christ child.” He already came; I don’t need to prepare for his coming, but I do celebrate that he came. Maybe what is really meant is “preparing ourselves for that celebration?”

I have benefited from Advent, even though my understanding and observance are admittedly incomplete. And to all the other “non-Adventers” like me out there, I suggest you give Advent a try. But since it includes all four Sundays in December, you may have to wait till next year.

Advent Reflection – Rector Michael Burke

This Advent I’ve asked a cross-section of Anchorage pastors, representing a variety of faith traditions, to submit a brief Advent Reflection under this year’s theme: “Does Celebrating Advent Really Make a Difference?”

Our next Advent Reflection was submitted by Rector Michael Michael Burke of St. Mary’s Episcopal at Tudor and Lake Otis.[img_assist|nid=163107|title=Rector Michael Burke|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=412]

Does Celebrating Advent Really Make a Difference?
I’ve been sitting here reading words written long ago… some 500 years after the Babylonian Captivity, back about 2000 years… Words tumbling and rumbling on down to today, the words of the prophet Isaiah in the mouth of John the Baptizer:

Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
Make his paths straight,
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God…

I’m thinking that this time in my life the barriers are not external, they are internal… Those things which keep me from God are not physical mountains or valleys or deserts, or rough ways outside of myself, but metaphorical and very real mountains and valleys inside myself.

Don Waring, a preacher from Ohio, writes that the “mountains, valleys, and rough places [John] referred to were not that of any outward landscape, but rather the untamed geography of the inner life. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That’s a fancy way of talking about a change of character, not a change of scenery.”

So for me, Advent is a time of “turning inward” to examine my own heart, and “turning outward” to others in service and compassion. If that sounds like “repentance,” that’s what it is…

In Hebrew: “repentance” is to STOP! And to “Turn Around” a change in direction, a new “facing forward” fundamentally different from what has come before.

What is it in my life that functions as a barrier to God? In what direction do I need to head to get around or over these things, and to “clear the way” for a renewed and lifegiving relationship with the Lord? These days at hand are days to plow out the old ruts and furrows which have held me for too long…

At first small changes in my life don’t feel any different; but they are in a new direction, and each footstep takes me closer to where God calls me to be. And if the mountain of habit, or comfortable patterns of life, or the valleys of discouragement seem too deep, the furrows too many and daily life too rough… If the life you and I live, and the lives of those around us seem to have taken too many crooked twists and turns for there to ever be a way home again… hear this:

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God…

God makes a way for our “turning.” God Does. God Is. Yes, this is repentance, when, in the words of St Augustine: “the dark night of doubt becomes the light of peace.”

In the words of Lutheran theologian Martin Marty, repentance is “not a sour dour mournful act,” but a joyous rebirth and celebration of our renewed commitment to follow Jesus in all we do.

Preparing for Advent then, is not just about celebrating the events of the past, the blessed birth of the infant Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem, nor entirely about our hopeful expectations of Christ’s second coming; ultimately, it is also about the present moment: a time of turning anew, and of living into the very present reality of God With Us,

Right Here…

Right Now…

Happy New Church Year.

Advent Reflection – Pastor Peter Perry

This Advent I’ve asked a cross-section of Anchorage pastors representing a variety of faith traditions to submit a brief Advent Reflection under this year’s theme: “Does Celebrating Advent Really Make a Difference?”

Our next Advent Reflection was submitted by Pastor Peter Perry, Pastor of St. John UMC on O’Malley.[img_assist|nid=163270|title=Pastor Peter Perry, St. John UMC|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=250|height=438]

Does Celebrating Advent Really Make a Difference?

One of my favorite irreverent FaceBook sites, Unvirtuous Abbey, recently published an explanation of the word “Advent.” The writer suggests that the word is a compound of Ad (a commercial) and Vent (to complain) resulting in Advent, which is a time when Christians complain about the commercialization of Christmas.

There would seem to be great truth in this definition, as year after year the faithful church folk I know attempt to follow a holy Advent in the face of the onslaught of holiday happenings, seasonal sales, and Merry Xmas excitement. The whininess of the Advent purists does sometimes become tiresome. The season of Advent, a time of spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ, was first observed in the fifth century, and predates such contemporary expressions of the season as Black Friday, Christmas cards, and even Christmas trees… but not Santa Claus whose legendary status grew from stories about Saint Nicholas of Myra, a kindly man with a habit of giving secret gifts, who lived in the FOURTH century. So Santa is even older than Advent, but what’s a hundred years or so between friends?

Nevertheless, it does seem to me that Advent has a much-needed place in our hectic rush to gift-giving indebtedness, our glad embrace of gluttony, and our burn-the-candle-at-both-ends schedules of parties and travel and shopping. Its place is one of mitigation. Advent is like the parachute that slows the otherwise fatal leap of the skydiver from the plane and helps us hit the ground, if not softly, at least safely. Let’s face facts: the culture of Christmas that we know is pervasive and powerful. Almost all of us give in to it to some degree or another. I’m glad that there are four Sundays of Advent that serve as speed bumps on the holiday highway, forcing my spirit to slow down just enough to remember the real reason we celebrate each year with so much joyful abandon. Advent, with its recurring call to prepare one’s heart for the coming of God into our world… Advent, with its four-fold doxology of candles lit for hope, joy, peace, and love… Advent, with its Biblical stories of prophets and peasants and paupers who discover God growing in their bellies, and in their barns, and along their back roads… is an annually recurring divine corrective to the excess of affluence and indifference that so tempt me at this time of year. Yes, Advent makes a difference to me… thanks be to God!