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.