Why bother with Advent? This is not a question that I have heard anyone ask me audibly, but I have seen the looks on some people’s faces when I mention the word, looks which seem to ask me this question in a rather puzzled tone.
My Protestant, Evangelical church tradition stems from the bold move of saints of old who threw away the shackles of tradition, ritual and liturgy all of which were interpreted to be muzzling free expression, personal relationship with Jesus and grace. The legalism of the past was over and church could now be independent from the hierarchical overlords who forced a conformity upon the average Christian.
I must confess, I rather like this narrative.
But these days I’m wondering if we have been a little arrogant.
I hear that slight arrogance sometimes in the comments of Christians who say they would prefer a ‘contemporary’ church to a ‘traditional’ church. Contemporary churches are those which have fully embraced the results of a more independent church tradition and choose to practice whichever disciplines and themes they like, whenever the Spirit leads, no matter the season. They have kept Christmas and Easter within the liturgical calendar, though they would never call it a liturgical calendar, but they certainly would never seriously practice Lent or Advent. For this is what those legalistic traditional churches do. On the one hand, because of my background I more or less resonate with this kind of perspective.
However, I think we have lost something of the richness and depth of our faith here with this kind of thinking. And it makes me sad.
Observing the season of Advent can enrich our faith, as God’s church through the ages is guided by the Holy Spirit to help us to connect with our waiting and longing for the arrival of our Lord Jesus. We can today enter into the longing of ancient Israel for the coming Messiah who would set them free from bondage, we enter into the longing for release of those today who suffer injustice, oppression and slavery, we connect with our own longings for the second advent of the Lord Jesus who promises to wipe every tear from our eyes one day and who will make all things new. This is Advent. We humbly recognize that we are not yet living the days of a restored kingdom, heaven on earth. This is Advent. We join in mourning and hope with those who suffer brutal situations and wait for deliverance. This is Advent. We remember that our story is connected with Israel’s story. This is Advent. We learn the discipline of waiting in a society that is consumed by the philosophy of instant gratification. I love this cultural critique by theologian Stanley Grenz;
The ancient Western church devised a rhythmic cycle for the celebration of Christ’s incarnation. At the center was Advent, the 20-plus days of beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day. By fasting and abstaining from public festivities, Christians were to prepare for the holy day by being drawn into the sense of longing for Messiah’s coming felt by generations of God’s faithful people. This heightened sense of anticipation would, in turn, give way to overwhelming joy and festive celebration when Christmas Day finally came….As members of the fast-food generation, we have become so eager to get to Christmas that we bypass Advent. Whereas our forebears enjoined fasting and reflection, we try to enjoy days failed with more Christmas festivities that we can endure. Christmas has displaced Advent on our calendars….Rather than savoring the plaintive mood of “O Come , O Come Emmanuel” We immediately want to hear a robust version of “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come.” In short, we have our Christmas early and create a drive-through Christmas.
we cannot truly sing “Joy to the World” unless we have thoroughly rehearsed “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (1)
Why bother with Advent?
We bother because tradition is not a bad word. We bother because we humbly unite with saints of old who whisper to us from the past , reminding us about the longevity of our faith. We bother because Advent teaches us the discipline of waiting in our fast- paced culture. We bother because our longings for the arrival of Christ have not yet been completely fulfilled. We bother because the church must give space to those who suffer terribly today in our world and join with them in suffering and hope.
At Advent we wait and we wait …and the church through the ages says together with one voice ‘Come Lord Jesus Come’. May it be so.
1. Stanley Grenz, “Drive Through Christmas” Christianity Today 12/6/99