Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Why We Celebrate Advent

[I have had a few requests for an explanation of Advent, and why we celebrate it.  So I am posting something I wrote for another setting to give some background and perspective.]

Celebrating Advent
Who celebrates Advent?
Christians have a history, but we also have a history of forgetting our history.  Because of this, we have churches that celebrate certain days, and other churches that don’t.  Some churches used to celebrate certain occasions but have stopped; others have begun celebrating days that they didn’t used to.   It would probably surprise most English-speaking Christians that in our early “Protestant” days, we celebrated Christmas and Advent; then, under the influence of Puritans who felt that anything not specifically commanded in Scripture should be disallowed, we stopped celebrating it.  Some of our Puritan and Baptist forefathers went so far as to urge the banning of any public displays for Christmas—and disciplining members who celebrated or even said, “Merry Christmas.”  However, as time went by these groups relaxed their anti-Christmas views, and by the middle of the 19th century, almost all Protestants were once again celebrating Christmas.  However, Advent was not universally restored.   Churches that followed the traditional church calendar (six seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, and two stretches of what were called “ordinary time”) celebrated it, while those who ignored the other seasons ignored Advent, too.  But many churches, including ours, are rediscovering the ways that Advent can be a blessing to our lives as we move toward Christmas.

Where did Advent come from?
Advent goes back into the 4th century, around the time Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire.  During that era, churches became very creative in their new-found freedom as many new people began to attend Christian services but with no understanding of what Christians believed.  Out of this situation, churches began to follow regular lesson plans for worship, both in the elements of worship services (the liturgy) and in the schedule of what would be taught (the church year of seasons mentioned above).  People did not own Bibles, but the Bible would be taught systematically through the year.  In this way, it was hoped that the basic truths of the faith would be passed on as people did certain things every week, recited certain words, heard certain scriptures read regularly, and celebrated particular seasons in order.  

Advent was the first season of the year, and it was meant to remind Christians that we were in need of a Savior.  The sense of longing and waiting that Israel had known was adopted as the Christian attitude of longing for Christ’s second coming.  The season involved both calls to repentance and preparation (similar to the message of John the Baptist) and joyful anticipation of the Messiah.  It usually began with a feast, then moved into fasting, and ended with feasting again.

What about Advent traditions?
Different traditions associated with Advent sprung up throughout the various countries where it was celebrated.  One set of traditions involved the development of four themes of Advent.  There has been some variation in them, but the third Sunday of Advent was always marked by the concept of joy.  We have taken as our themes the order of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love—themes that were prominent in many places that celebrated Advent.

Another tradition involves candles.  Typically there were four Advent candles in a wreath.  Often one of the candles would be pink (for joy), for the third week, and the other candles would be purple, symbolizing both repentance and royalty.  Each Sunday, and throughout the week, the candle for that week would be lit, with each week adding another candle.  Many wreaths would have a white candle in the middle, called the Christ candle.  It would not be lit until Christmas Eve, which began the traditional 12 day Christmas celebration that would end on January 6th.    

So why do we choose Advent?
Churches like ours that have adopted the celebration of Advent believe that it is a positive replacement for Christians of the general “holiday spirit” that focuses more on presents and some nebulous call to be cheerful.  Instead, we choose to focus on the One whose birth is being celebrated, and specifically on why He came and what His coming promises to all of us.  We also want this to be a time of intentional reminder that we are still waiting for the completion of our hope.  Christian faith is still pointed toward the future and the coming of Jesus back to this world.