By Mark Roberts
I believe that Advent can deepen your relationship with God and your worship.
I didn’t always believe this, however. As a child, I associated the word “Advent” with a certain kind of festive calendar that I enjoyed in the weeks prior to Christmas. Advent had nothing to do with God or church. Thus, during my teenage years, I was surprised when the new pastor of my Presbyterian church used what he called an “Advent wreath” in worship services prior to Christmas. This wreath enhanced our worship by emphasizing the themes of hope, love, joy and peace. But, wreath or no wreath, I still didn’t think of Advent as having much potential to help me know God more intimately or worship God more deeply.
My fuller appreciation of Advent didn’t come until I began serving as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Southern California. There, I met my first “Adventophile,” a lover of Advent. Our worship director passionately explained to me the benefit of Advent-themed worship in the weeks before Christmas. So, for the first time in my life, I began to think of Advent as a distinct season of the year. Our church sang hymns of hope and yearning, such as “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” We held off singing “Silent Night” and other carols until Christmas Eve and thereafter.
As I led my congregation in Advent worship, I was most surprised by one thing. This thing was not, I should mention, the negative response from some in the congregation to our Advent music. Along with them, I missed singing Christmas carols before Christmas. My worship director and I decided that, in future years, we would sing some Christmas songs during the latter portion of Advent, though reserving a few classics for Christmas. But, what surprised me most of all was what happened to me during my first Advent. I sensed God’s presence in a new way as I got in touch with my yearning for him. I began hoping afresh for the justice and peace of the future when Christ comes again. I realized all over again just how much I needed a Savior. Then, on Christmas Eve, my joy over the birth of Jesus was unlike anything I had known before. Advent had prepared me to celebrate Christmas with new depth and fervor. Thus, I became an “Adventophile.”
I’m sure that many who read this article are also lovers of Advent. But, I expect that many others aren’t yet convinced. Perhaps it will be helpful if I answer a few of the most common questions about Advent.
What is Advent?
Advent is a season of the church year when Christians prepare for the coming(s) of Christ. The English word “advent” is derived from the Latin adventus, which means “coming” or “visit.” Thus, as it says in the Presbyterian “Directory for Worship,” Advent is “a season to recollect the hope of the coming of Christ, and to look forward to the Lord’s coming again” (W-3.2002a).
When is Advent?
The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, concluding on Christmas Eve. It is the first season of the church year and leads into the 12-day celebration of Christmas. Given fluctuations in the secular calendar, Advent lasts between three and four weeks. (If you’re unfamiliar with the church year and want to learn more, let me refer you to an online article I have written entitled “Introduction to the Christian Year“.
Why Celebrate Advent?
As you may recall, my thesis for this article is that Advent can deepen your relationship with God and enrich your worship. If this is true, then you’ve got ample reason to observe Advent. But, let me explain a bit further why I believe Advent can have such an impact on your faith and worship.
First, Advent emphasizes dimensions in our relationship with God that we sometimes neglect. In Advent, we use our Scripture-shaped imaginations to feel what it was like for the children of Israel to long for a Savior. Also, we get in touch with our own yearning for the future coming of the Lord when he will establish justice, wipe away every tear and bring the fullness of his peace. We pay attention to the experience of waiting on God rather than rushing on to the next religious activity. Thus, Advent leads us to experience our neediness, our hopefulness and our desire for God.
Second, Advent can help us solve the “secular Christmas” problem. As Christians, we want Christmas to be about Jesus. But, at the same time, we are overwhelmed by secular celebrations of Christmas. Plus, if we’re honest, we ourselves enjoy many of these secular traditions. So, we feel torn between the secular and the religious dimensions of Christmas. I have found that observing Advent provides a creative way to focus on God during the weeks prior to Christmas. Rather than trying unsuccessfully to avoid secular celebrations, I have added elements of Advent devotion to my life. These elements, such as household worship inspired by an Advent wreath, draw my heart to the Lord in anticipation of his coming.
Third, Advent prepares us for a truer and merrier celebration of Christmas. Advent invites us to remember the yearning of Israel for the Messiah. Through our recollection, we are reminded of just how much we also need a Shepherd to watch over us, a Savior to forgive us and a Redeemer to deliver us. Thus, when Christmas finally comes, we are ready to sing “Joy to the World” with renewed zeal.
Should all Christians observe Advent?
I believe Advent is one of those practices upon which Christians are free to differ. There is no biblical imperative to observe Advent, even though it is based on scriptural themes. Our Reformed tradition does not require it, though our tradition certainly encourages us to rekindle our yearning for God and hope in his coming. Many longtime Presbyterians like me have found in Advent a pearl we’d like to share with others
This pearl comes first in the string known as the church year (sometimes called the liturgical year or Christian year). This way of structuring a year affirms that “God has provided a rhythm of seasons which orders life and influences the church’s worship. … God’s work of redemption in Jesus Christ offers the Church a central pattern for ordering worship in relationship to significant occasions in the life of Jesus and of the people of God” (W-3.2002). In other words, the church year is centered in and ordered by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Different churches and denominations observe the church year, including Advent, with a wide variety of practices and traditions. Many Presbyterians have come to love the use of Advent colors (purple or royal blue, pink), Advent traditions (a wreath with candles), Advent music (such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”) and Advent-themed Scripture readings (focusing on hope, waiting on God, the coming of the Messiah, our need for a Savior, etc.). Yet, we love these aspects of Advent most of all because they invite us into a deeper, truer experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
If you’re looking for more practical suggestions about celebrating Advent in both personal and corporate worship, let me suggest three resources. On my blog, you can find “What is Advent?” and the “Advent Devotional Guide”. My Advent e-book is available in both Kindle and Nook formats from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Look for “Discovering Advent: How to Experience the Power of Waiting on God at Christmastime.”
MARK D. ROBERTS is senior adviser and theologian-in-residence for Foundations for Laity Renewal in the Texas Hill Country. He blogs at patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/. His “Daily Reflections” can be found at thehighcalling.org/.