Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Advent Introduction: What is Advent? Why Does It Matter? How Can We Celebrate It?



Introduction to Advent

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.

 

Copyright © 2010 by Mark D. Roberts and Beliefnet

 

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use, for use in a Christian ministry, or for use in an educational venture, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit to this website: http://blog.beliefnet.com/markdroberts/. For all other uses, please contact me at mark@markdroberts.com. Thank you.

If you’re looking for a more general discussion of the Christian year (liturgical year, Christian calendar, church year, etc.), please check this series: Introduction to the Christian Year.

The Advent of Advent

This coming Sunday is the first day of Advent.
If you’ve been reading my blog for more than a year, you know that I
generally make a big deal out of Advent. If you’re new to my blog,
however, you may wonder why I bother. My goal in this post is to explain
what Advent is. My next post in this series will make the case for
taking Advent seriously.

When is Advent?

Advent is a season in the Christian year that lasts for
about four weeks. It begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on
Christmas Eve, thus there is some variation in its length. If you’re
unfamiliar with the idea of Christian seasons, you might find helpful a series I’ve written called: Introduction to the Christian Year. I should mention that Eastern Orthodox Christians do not recognize
Advent per se, but have a longer season that is rather like Advent.
Their Nativity Fast begins in the middle of November and is a season for repentance and abstinence.

In our secular American celebration of Christmas, the Christmas season (or holiday
season, ugh) begins in the weeks prior to Christmas Day. Generally,
this season starts in early December, though retailers have a bad habit
of beginning Christmas in November (or even October). In my rule book,
you shouldn’t listen to Christmas music or turn on Christmas lights
until after you’ve finished the Thanksgiving turkey . . . at the
earliest. Of course outside of my immediate family, nobody follows my
rules . . . especially retailers.

So Advent
overlaps with what is usually thought of in American culture as the
Christmas season. But its beginning and ending are well defined, and its
themes are quite a bit different from what is commonly associated with
secular Christmas celebrations.

 
Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.

 

What is Advent?

advent-calendar-girl-5.jpgThe Christian season of Christmas actually
begins on Christmas Eve and lasts for twelve days, ending on January 6.
(No, the twelve-day season of Christmas did not start with the song. It
was the other way around.) The time before Christmas is Advent, a season of preparation for Christmas.
Christians prepare for celebrating the birth of Jesus by remembering
the longing of the Jews for a Messiah. In Advent, we’re reminded of how
much we ourselves also need a Savior, and we look forward to our
Savior’s second coming even as we prepare to celebrate his first coming
at Christmas. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “visit.” In the season with this name, we keep
in mind both “advents” of Christ, the first in Bethlehem and the second
yet to come.

If
you’re unfamiliar with Advent, I expect it might feel odd to think of
the weeks before Christmas as something more than Christmastime. For
most of my life, Advent played very little role in my pre-Christmas
consciousness. As a child, I did have Advent calendars: sturdy,
decorative paper displays with 25 little “windows,” one of which I
would open each day of December leading up to Christmas. Sometimes
Advent calendars are made of wood and feature twenty-five little boxes,
each containing some little treasure (see photo).  My Advent
calendar was a way to whet my appetite for Christmas, not that I needed
much help to get ready for my favorite day of the year, mind you.

I
loved Christmas when I was young, partly because it celebrated the birth
of Jesus, but mostly because it was a giant party in which I received
lots of presents. In a sense, the Christian observance is a bit like my
boyhood Advent calendars, though it has a much more serious purpose.
It’s meant to get us ready, not for a present-opening party, but for a
transformational celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What Colors Are Used in Advent?

advent-wreath-4-candles-5.jpg

There
are a few other things about Advent, besides its themes, that you might find odd if you’re
unfamiliar with the season. The strangest might be the Advent color scheme. We
associate Christmas and the weeks leading up to it with typical
Christmas colors: red, green, white, silver, and gold. Advent, on the
other hand, features purple (or dark blue) and pink. The purple/blue
color signifies seriousness, repentance, and royalty. Pink points to the
minor theme of Advent, which is joy. For many observers of Advent, the first, second, and fourth
Sundays of Advent are “purple/blue” Sundays. Only the third is a “pink”
Sunday. The pink, joyful color reminds us that, even as Advent helps us
get in touch with our sober yearning for God to come to us, we know that
he did in fact come in the person of Jesus.

Thus,
our major-theme of waiting has a grace note of joy mixed in. If you’ve
seen a
traditionally-colored Advent wreath will recognize the purple and pink
colors of this season (with the central, white, Christ-candle for
Christmas Eve/Day). But if you’re unfamiliar with Advent and happen to
attend a church service in early December in a church that recognizes
Advent, you might be startled to see lots of purple, a bit of pink, and
no red or green. (Many churches combine the colors of Advent and
Christmas, however, so visitors won’t be completely perplexed. Advent
purists don’t approve of such a mix, but I think we need to be gracious
in our response to the Advent traditions of others. )

Advent’s Growing Popularity

Advent doesn’t get much attention compared to
Christmas, though interest in Advent is growing steadily in many
churches and in many Christian homes. That’s not to say everybody is an
“Adventophile,” a lover of Advent, however. Some Protestants ignore
Advent because it isn’t taught in Scripture and because they associate
it with Roman Catholicism. Secular culture ignores Advent because there
isn’t much money to be made here. I suppose you might be able to make a
few bucks selling purple and pink candles, but this isn’t going to
thrill most retailers.

I think, however, there are lots of good reasons to pay
more attention to Advent, however. I’ll begin to explore these in my
next post in this series.

 


Advent Devotional Guide: Preparing for the Coming of Christ 

I have written a devotional guide for Advent. It is based on
Scripture, and is meant to be used with an Advent wreath. This
devotional is simple and can be used in families with young children. It
can also be adapted for other uses, such as Advent-themed worship
services or personal devotions. You are welcome to download the Advent Devotional Guide and use it as you see fit.

 


 

How I First Learned About Advent

In yesterday’s post, I explained the timing and purpose of
Advent, as well as its unexpected color scheme. I closed by noting that
Advent is growing in popularity, especially among Protestant Christians
who, in many cases, did not grow up with much awareness of Advent.
Liturgically sophisticated Protestants, such as Lutherans and
Episcopalians, generally are familiar with Advent, but many have just
the slightest understanding of this season. For most of my life, I fell
into that category. Though, as I noted in my last
post, I enjoyed paper Advent calendars in my youth, I did not think of
Advent as a season of the Christian year. In fact, I had no idea that
Christians even had a year with special seasons. At the First
Presbyterian Church of Hollywood where I grew up, we celebrated
Christmas and Easter, and that was about it. The weeks of December prior
to Christmas were Christmastime, not Advent.

hollywood-pres-xmas-eve-5.jpg

When
I was a teenager, Lloyd Ogilvie came as Senior Pastor of Hollywood
Pres. He brought with him the tradition of using an Advent wreath in
worship services prior to Christmas. Though we continued to sing
Christmas carols and decorate the sanctuary with Christmas colors, Dr.
Ogilvie did, however, speak of Advent as a season of preparation for
Christmas. Still, I thought of Advent mostly as Christmas-lite, and not
as a distinct season with distinct emphases. (Photo: First Presbyterian
Church of Hollywood on Christmas Eve 2007)

While I was preparing for ordination in the Presbyterian
Church, I took a course in “polity” (church order) at Fuller Theological
Seminary. The professor, Dr. Gary Demarest, lectured on a section of
the PC(USA) Book of Order that focused on worship. In this
lecture, he spoke with zeal about the “Church Year” and its various
seasons. These included: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week,
Easter, and Pentecost. Dr. Demarest talked excitedly about how the
seasons of the Church Year could enrich the worship of a church as well
as one’s private devotions. I had never heard anything like this. I was
intrigued, but didn’t do much with what I learned at that time. I was
serving on the staff at Hollywood Pres, where we continued to use an
Advent wreath in our pre-Christmas worship services, but otherwise
didn’t do much with Advent.

My first full exposure to Advent came when I began as
Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991. It started with
a complaint, of all things. Funny how that happens in church! Sometime
in November, a member of the church came to me to let me know how
unhappy she was that “Loren doesn’t let us sing Christmas carols until
Christmas Eve.” I asked why Loren, our worship director at the time, had
this peculiar proscription. “Because he’s into Advent,” the woman
explained. “He wants to sing only Advent songs during Advent.”

What I heard about Loren seemed odd to me for many reasons,
partly because I could only think of two Advent hymns: “Come, Though
Long Expected Jesus” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It was hard to
imagine four weeks of nothing but these songs, as wonderful as they might
be.

When I talked with Loren, I learned that the complaint I
had heard was only partly true. Apparently, in years past, Loren had
virtually outlawed Christmas music during Advent. He had reserved the
beloved carols for Christmas Eve and the twelve-day season of Christmas
that ended on January 6. But when many people in the congregation let
Loren know how much they missed singing Christmas carols prior to
Christmas, he relented. Now his plan was to start Advent with music that
was Advent-themed, and slowly include Christmas carols in the Sundays
prior to Christmas. A few carols, however, like “Joy to the World,” were
reserved for Christmas Eve and thereafter. (This was ironic, because
“Joy to the World” was not actually written as a Christmas carol! See my article in Worship Leader magazine.)

As I spoke with Loren, reassured that he wasn’t banning
Christmas music altogether before Christmas Eve, I listened to his
passion for Advent and the possibilities of our worship and devotional
life being enriched by observing this season. I was excited by the
potential and eager to experience a more intentional and complete Advent
season.

During my first Advent at Irvine Presbyterian Church, I did
find it odd to sing relatively few Christmas carols before Christmas
Eve. And I did find much of the Advent music to be unfamiliar. We used
the Advent wreath in worship, with its expressions of expectation and
hope. Though I missed some of what I had always associated with the
build up to Christmas, I found that Advent did indeed heighten my
yearning for the coming of Christ, and it did indeed help me to
experience Christmas in a deeper way.

Christmas of 1991, my first at Irvine Presbyterian Church,
was the beginning of my becoming an Adventophile . . . an Advent lover.

 

Why I am an “Adventophile”

In my last post in this series, I told the story of my Advent beginnings. When I
started out as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991, for the
first time in my life, I began to see Advent as a distinct season of the
year and to experience its richness. Before too long I turned out to be an “Adventophile” – a lover of Advent. Let me explain why.

Advent-wreath-choir-5.jpg

In
the years following my Advent beginnings, my appreciation of Advent
grew slowly and steadily. At some point, I became aware of the purple and
pink Advent color scheme, something we had not previously emphasized at
Irvine Presbyterian Church. I remember when, sometime in the 1990s, we
started using three purple and one pink candle in the church Advent
wreath. It was a change for church members, who had been used to all
white candles. Of course a few people made sure I knew they missed the
“beautiful white candles.” But soon our whole church appreciated the
connotations of the colors. (Photo: The Advent wreath on the chancel of
the sanctuary at Irvine Presbyterian Church)

At some point, I decided to go “whole hog” with Advent colors one year. I wore purple ties during Advent. I put up an “Advent tree” in my office
at church, which could be seen from the busy street in front of the
church. I didn’t outlaw the use of Christmas colors in our sanctuary or
anything like that, though our paraments (cloth decorations) on the communion table and
pulpit were purple. I’m sure some folks thought I’d lost a few of my
marbles in my zeal for Advent colors, but, for me, it was a chance to
emphasize Advent in my personal life as well as in my ministry.

Why did Advent matter so much to me? Why had I come to love this season that was generally ignored? Among many reasons, two stand
out. First, I found that observing Advent enriched my celebration of
Christmas. Taking four weeks to focus on the hope of Christ’s coming
made me much more joyful when I finally got to celebrate it. The more I
got in touch with my need for a Savior, the more I rejoiced at the
Savior’s birth.

Second, I found in Advent a solution to the age-old problem of
secular Christmas vs. spiritual Christmas. If you’re a Christian, you
know what I mean. We recognize that Christmas is, most of all, a time to
celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s a holiday that focuses on the
meaning of the Incarnation. Yet, given the secular traditions of
Christmas, we spend most of our time preparing, not for a celebration of
the birth of Jesus, but for fulfilling the demands of the season. We
have to buy lots of presents for lots of people and make sure they are
all wrapped and delivered. We have parties to attend and parties to
host. We have relatives who come to visit or, alternatively, we are the
relatives who go elsewhere to visit. This requires lots of planning, not
to mention the energy required for holiday travel. We have to send out
Christmas cards, making sure our addresses are right and that they get
on all the envelopes. If we have younger children, we may very well
spend hours trying to assemble gifts that come with sketchy instructions
written by someone for whom English is, at best, a third language. And
so on, and so on, and so on.

Meanwhile, we hear our Christian leaders telling us that we’re
spending too much time and money in secular celebrations and not
focusing enough on the real meaning of Christmas. Religious posters
proclaim: “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But, in fact, Jesus
faces heavy competition from retailers, relatives, and revelers. So
what’s a Christian to do?

In my idealistic twenties, I thought about downsizing my celebrations
of Christmas. At one point I tried to convince some friends and family
members that we should make Christmas an entirely “spiritual” holiday,
one in which we focus only on the birth of Jesus. Not wanting to be the
Grinch, however, I didn’t abandon secular festivities or gift giving.
“Let’s do that stuff on New Year’s Eve,” I argued. “Not only is this
holiday very close to Christmas, but also, if we give gifts on New
Year’s, we’ll be able to shop in the post-Christmas sales and that will
save a lot of money.” Ah, what persuasive logic! But nobody was persuaded, least of
all my family members. The secular and familial Christmas traditions
were too embedded in our lives and, I might add, greatly loved. So I
abandoned my effort to de-secularize Christmas. (In retrospect, I rather
think I wouldn’t have liked doing what I proposed. I too, you see, am a
lover of Christmas traditions.)

As I entered my thirties, I tried to emphasize the Christian aspects
of Christmas in the days leading up to the holiday. But I seemed to be
fighting a losing battle. I needed some way to focus my mind and heart.
And I needed some new traditions that would help me. Then I discovered
Advent. For some reason, observing Advent during December helped me to
draw near to God in a way that I had not been able to do before. I still
engaged in the secular celebrations of Christmas, happily so, I might
add. But I also added several new practices that tuned my heart to
resonate with the deeper meaning of the coming of Christ.

I know that many others have had a similar experiences to mine. Since
2004 I have been blogging about Advent. During the past six years I
have received dozens of emails from people who have shared their own
excitement for Advent. Some have grown up with Advent traditions. Most
have “discovered” Advent later in life, much as I did. All have found
that observing Advent enriches their celebration of Christmas and allows
them to have a precious, peaceful, God-focused experience during what
is often a hectic holiday season.

In my next post I’ll describe some of the Advent practices that I have found to be most helpful.

Growing Closer to God in Advent: Some Practical Suggestions

So far in this series I’ve explained what Advent is and why I have
found it helpful to observe Advent. If you’re at all convinced, you may
wonder what to do about it. In this post and the next in this series
I’ll outline some practical suggestions for how you might experience
Advent.

Pay Attention to the Advent Content of Corporate Worship

If your church celebrates Advent, be ready to pay close attention to
the readings, prayers, songs, and seasonal pageantry (like the lighting
of the Advent wreath). Your intentionality in worship can infuse your
whole life with Advent expectation.

Many churches, even if they don’t plunge into the depths of Advent,
nevertheless wade into Advent themes in their pre-Christmas worship.
They use readings from the Old Testament prophets or sing Advent carols
like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The more you pay attention to these
Advent elements, the more your personal experience will be enriched.

If your church doesn’t acknowledge Advent, you may decide to talk
with your pastor or worship leader about it. But, please, be kind and
encouraging! Throughout my years as a parish pastor, I found it much
easier to receive “Here’s something I find exciting!” than “Here’s what
you’re doing wrong!”

Enjoy Advent Music

This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, unfortunately. There are
hundreds of popular Christmas songs and carols, played everywhere during
Advent, from churches, to gas stations and shopping malls. There are
comparatively few Advent songs, though many songs and carols do touch
upon Advent themes of waiting, hoping, and yearning for God.

Advent-St.Pauls-CD-4.jpg

If you enjoy classical music, there are a few Advent albums available, including:

Advent at St. Paul’s. This is my current favorite of the bunch.

An Advent Procession Based on the Great “O” Antiphons

Advent Carols from St. John’s

Bach: Advent Cantatas

The first part of the so-called “Christmas portion” Handel’s Messiah
is filled with Advent themes (from the beginning through “The People
That Walked in Darkness”). This is probably the most readily available
and familiar classical Advent music. My favorite recording of the Messiah is the Academy of Ancient Music version conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

I have found one more contemporary Advent CD. Actually, it combines Advent music with Lenten music. Prepare the Way of the Lord
by David Phillips contains 18 instrumental tracks, half dedicated to
Advent, the other half dedicated to Lent. This is a wonderful collection
of music by an accomplished Christian pianist. You can purchase the CD from Amazon, or you can download an MP3 version from David Phillips’ website.

I listen to quite a bit of Christmas music in Advent, but try to
stick with instrumental versions. Thus I save listening to sung
Christmas carols for Christmas Eve and thereafter. This way I still have
a sense of waiting even while listening to familiar carols.

Use an Advent Wreath in Your Home

Xmas-before-5.jpg

You can get Advent wreath kits online or from most Christian
bookstores. But you can easily make your own with a wreath (natural or
artificial) and five candles. (Photo: The Advent wreath in my home.)

If you aren’t sure what to do with an Advent wreath, I’ve written a guide that you can access by clicking here. Feel free to adapt it as you see fit, or to use it in ministry settings.

Let Your Nativity Scene Function as an Advent Calendar

I have not done this before, but I have friends who do. They have
nativity scenes with lots of characters. They time the setting up of
their nativity scene so that they add one character each day, adding the
Christ child on Christmas (or Christmas Eve). This can also be a
wonderful family tradition that involves each member, especially younger
children.

Dress for Advent

Advent-sweater-ties-4.jpgIt’s common for people to wear Christmas colors throughout the month
of December, so why not Advent colors? I used to do this when I led
worship at Irvine Presbyterian Church, wearing a purple tie in the more
traditional services and a purple sweater in the contemporary services.
These days, I wear purple ties to work during the first part of Advent,
before I transition to Christmas ties (which I won’t get to wear unless I
use them in the days leading up to Christmas).

Focus in Your Personal Devotions on Advent Themes

There are many texts, both in the Old Testament and New Testament,
that express Advent themes. By reading and meditating on these passages
you’ll enhance your Advent experience of God. Some possibilities for
Advent Bible readings can be found in my Advent Devotional Guide.

Tomorrow I’ll add one more way to observe Advent. This I count as my greatest Advent discovery. Stay tuned . . . .

Sharing My Greatest Advent Discovery

Earlier in this series I spoke of discovering Advent. Of course I
didn’t discover it in the way an explorer discovers a place no one has
been before. Millions upon millions of Christians have observed Advent
for centuries upon centuries. (Check this short history of Advent.)
I’ve been a Johnny-come-lately. My discovery of Advent was more like
when I find some fantastic natural oasis that’s been around for a long
time, but, for some reason, I hadn’t ever visited.

What I want to write about today isn’t my discovery of Advent as an
opportunity for growing in my relationship with God, but rather my
accidental (providential?) discovery of one way to observe Advent that
has made a huge difference in my life.

It came in a most unlikely place . . . standing in line at Costco.
Now you need to understand that I am terrible at waiting, especially in
long checkout lines. Some time ago, I was rushing to get a couple of
items at the market. I picked a short “Ten items or less” line, hoping
to buy my stuff and get going. Of course, the person in front of me
wanted to use a gift card, but the gift card couldn’t be read
electronically. The checker knew there was a way to enter the gift card
number manually, but he wasn’t sure how to do it. So he had to call his
manager. Five minutes later, I was still standing in that “short” line,
watching other lines moving swiftly. My teeth were grinding and my
stomach was churning. Mostly, I was mad at myself for picking the wrong
line.

My impatience with slow checkout lines makes me an especially lousy
Christmas shopper, because, almost by definition, Christmas shopping
requires waiting in line (unless, of course, you are able to do all of your shopping online!) Whether you’re at a fine department store or
just grabbing some chips from the local mini-mart, chances are you’ll be
waiting in line during the month of December. And, if you’re like me,
inevitably you’ll end up in the slowest line in the store. This sort of
thing can just about ruin the Christmas season for me, because waiting
makes me grumpy.

Okay, enough with the confession, now to the discovery.

costco-lines-5.jpg

A
few years ago I was waiting in a long line at the Costco in Irvine,
California. In spite of my best efforts to find the shortest line, of
course I ended up in the slowest moving line of all. As I stood there, I
could feel my blood pressure rising. The more I waited, the more
frustrated I became. Words I never say (well, almost never) filled my
mind, and I’m not referring to “Happy Holidays.” “Why do I always get in
the slowest *^%#($ line?” I asked myself. “And why is this taking so *#^($&  long?” I grumbled under my breath. (Photo: Waiting in line at Costco)

Then, all of a sudden, it dawned on me. I had one of those moments of
grace in which God managed to slip a word into my consciousness. As I
stood in that slow-moving line at Costco, I was waiting. Waiting!
In a way, I was experiencing exactly what Advent is all about. Of
course I wasn’t waiting for God to save me or anything momentous like
that. I was simply waiting to get out of that store so I could go home.
But, nevertheless, I was waiting. I was forced to experience something
that’s at the very heart of Advent.

So I decided, right then and there in the line at Costco, that I was
going to use the experience of waiting in line while Christmas shopping
as an Advent reminder. In that moment, and in similar moments yet to
come, I was going to remember what Advent is all about. I was going to
put myself back into the shoes of the Jews who were waiting for the
Messiah. And I was going to remember that I too am waiting for Christ to
return.

As I decided to let the experience of forced waiting be a moment of
Advent reflection rather than a cause for getting an ulcer, I found my
anger quickly drain away. Waiting in line at Costco became, not a trial
to be endured, but a moment of grace. And get this: I even found myself
thanking God for the chance to slow down a bit and wait. This was,
indeed, a miracle.

By the time I got to check out, my heart was peaceful, even joyous. I
felt as if I had discovered hidden treasure. But I didn’t want to keep
it hidden. The next Sunday I shared my discovery with my congregation
at Irvine Presbyterian Church. In the days that followed, many of my
flock told me how much their Advent had been improved by thinking of
waiting in line, not as a curse, but as a potential blessing.

Honestly, I can still forget my commitment to use waiting in line as a
time for Advent reflection. My gut instinct can take over. I can easily
start clenching my fists as I think of how much time I’m losing. But
then a gentle breeze from the Spirit will remind me of how waiting can
enrich my life, rather than rob me of joy.

traffic-bad-5.jpg

Come
to think of it, the grace of waiting in line during Advent might also
be relevant to one of my other giant pet peeves: heavy traffic! Traffic
is often worse during the season of Advent as people are rushing to the
malls to shop for gifts. But I wonder if it’s possible to allow the
hassle of traffic to serve as a reminder of Advent waiting.

In the last few years, what I hate most about the days prior to
Christmas – waiting in line – has become a quasi-sacrament, a time to
experience God’s grace. If you’ve never tried this, it may sound to you
as if I’ve lost my mind. This sounds even sillier than wearing purple in
the weeks before Christmas rather than red and green. But let me
encourage you to try it. By experiencing waiting in line not as a
punishment, but as a opportunity to wait peacefully, you’ll find a bit
of grace, hidden and ready to be discovered, much like a little picture
behind one of those doors of an Advent calendar.

Is Advent Biblical?

Earlier in this series I mentioned the fact that many
Protestant Christians reject Advent because they consider it to be a
Roman Catholic practice. For most of these people, it isn’t so much the Roman
Catholic aspect of Advent that is truly problematic, but the fact that
Advent is not taught in Scripture. You can’t turn to a place in the
Bible and find teaching on Advent or a command to set aside four weeks
prior to Christmas as a season of waiting, hoping, and yearning.

Does this mean that biblically-oriented Christians
shouldn’t observe Advent? For some, the answer is “Yes.” If it’s not
explicitly taught in Scripture, then Christians shouldn’t do it. You’ll
find that kind of argument among non-instrumental Church of Christ
believers, for example. Since instruments are not explicitly mentioned in
the New Testament teachings about worship, then we shouldn’t use
instruments today.

So what about Advent? Does its absence from Scripture mean we shouldn’t observe it?

If you buy that argument, then you must also abstain from
Christian celebrations of Christmas and Easter, which also aren’t found
in Scripture. You might as well throw out Mother’s Day, Father’s Day,
Independence Day, and Thanksgiving too, since none of these are mentioned
in Scripture. (I suppose you could find a way to derive Thanksgiving
from the Jewish festival of Sukkoth (Tabernacles), though it
wouldn’t fall on the fourth Thursday in November and it wouldn’t involve
eating Turkey or watching football.) Moreover, if you really believe
that Christians can only do that which is explicitly taught in
Scripture, then you shouldn’t go a to a church building for worship, or
sit in pews or chairs, or use microphones, or wear pants, or use
hymnals, or use digital projectors, or . . . .  Honestly, I don’t know
any Christian who actually lives consistently by the “I don’t do it if
it’s not in Scripture rule,” though I admire the intent of those who
try.

I believe that we are free in Christ to do many things that
are not specifically taught in Scripture. To a certain extent, I agree
with those who argue that if something is not prohibited in the Bible,
then it’s okay for Christians. (Of course this argument has limits. I
had a Christian friend in high school who used this argument to defend
her use of marijuana, since it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. The rest
of my Christian friends and I were persuaded that the analogy of
drunkenness applied to getting high on pot. Thus we believed marijuana
use to be sinful.) Surely there is nothing in Scripture that prohibits
one from observing Advent. No matter what you think of it, Advent surely
doesn’t fall into the “illegal drugs” category of no-nos.

But I’m not concerned merely with whether Advent is not
disallowed in Scripture. I want to know if observing Advent is
consistent with biblical themes and priorities. Is Advent biblical in
this grander sense? Could the observance of Advent help one to grow in
faith in a way that aligns with biblical faith?

Advent-tree-inside-5.jpg

Yes, I think so. For a moment, forget about Advent itself, and answer the following questions:

• Is it a good thing for us Christians to set aside a
special time in the year to focus more on God and grow in our
relationship with him?

• Is it good for us to get in touch with just how much we need a Savior?

• Is it helpful for us to wait on the Lord and to learn to wait upon him more faithfully?

• Is it helpful to remember our hope in God and to be refreshed in that hope?

• Would it be a valuable thing in your life to be prepared to celebrate the true meaning of the Incarnation?

• Would you like to experience more of God’s peace and presence during the often hectic weeks prior to Christmas?

• Would your faith be enriched if you were to read,
study, and meditate on biblical texts that speak of the first and second
“advents” of Christ?

deer-office-window-4.jpg

I
think most biblically-oriented Christians would answer these questions
in the affirmative. Does that mean we all should observe Advent? Of
course not. We are free to do so or not to do so, according to our
consciences and sense of God’s leading. But it’s not hard to see how
Advent (or something like it) could be beneficial for most Christians.
(Photo above: I’m not actually expecting many people to imitate my
Advent tree, with its purple lights and purple and pink ornaments. This
tree was in my office at Irvine Presbyterian Church, and could be seen
by thousands of people driving by each day. I don’t put an Advent tree
in my office anymore, partly because I don’t have the space, and partly
because the only beings who would appreciate it are of the four-legged
variety. Photo to the right: The view out of my office window. To my knowledge, these deer do not pull Santa’s sleigh.)

If you’re looking for biblical passages that express Advent themes, you might think of such texts as:

Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD! (Psalm 27:14)

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. (Psalm 62:5-7)

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning. (Psalm 130:5-6)

O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities. (Psalm 130:7-8)

[T]hose who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Isa 40:31)

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are
not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the
creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of
God;  for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will
but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation
itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the
freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole
creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;  and not only the
creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit,
groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our
bodies.  For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see,
we wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:18-25)

Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline
yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring
you when he is revealed. (1 Peter 1:13)

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)

Of course then there are lots of biblical passages that
focus even more specifically on Advent themes and hopes associated with
the coming of the Messiah. You can find these in my Advent Devotional Guide.

So, though it’s correct to say that Advent itself is not
taught in Scripture, and therefore Christians are free to observe it or
not, it is equally correct to say that the emphases of Advent are
thoroughly biblical. If the traditions of Advent help us to focus more
on the Lord, to get in touch with our need for him, to replenish our
hope, and to celebrate Christmas with greater meaning and depth, then I’m all fer it, as we say in Texas.

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