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.

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