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.

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