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my last post in this series, I told the story of my Advent beginnings.
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.
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
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
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.