Gospel for Asia (GFA) Advent Essay, Wills Point, Texas
Raju looked confused by my question, and his response revealed it: “What do you mean by Christmas tradition?”
I had served the Lord in Asia with Raju off-and-on for over a year. He was a first-generation, Asian believer with a tall, slim build and a heartwarming smile. He loved Jesus and was excited about the upcoming seasons of Advent and Christmas.
I tried to explain what I was asking to my bewildered brother in Christ, “Do you and your family have anything that you do every year to celebrate Christmas?”
I had come from a family that had been either devoted or nominal Christians for every generation that we knew of. Having immigrated from Eastern Europe to America in the beginning of the 20th century, many of the traditional ways we celebrated Christmas stretched back to before my forefathers left Europe. It never occurred to me that it may take two generations of believers to form a tradition.
Raju then went on to explain the different things his family did to celebrate Christmas, most of which actually occurred before Christmas. He told me about how they took part in different Christmas programs at his local church, how they sang Christmas carols, how they helped the poor, and how they spent Christmas Day with the Christian community.
Some of his traditions were similar to mine, some were different.
As I asked other Asian brothers and sisters about their Christmas traditions, their answers were very similar to Raju’s, though they were from different cultures and had different mother tongues. Their “traditions”—though they didn’t identify them as that—were more about what they shared with other Christians within Believers Eastern Church and the rest of the church worldwide, rather than what was passed down to them by their parents. Their Christmas and Advent traditions were truly “church” traditions, not family traditions like mine.
The Season Leading Up to Christmas: Advent
The season of Advent is an important part of preparing for Christmas. Our Asian brothers and sisters follow the traditional church calendar that has been handed down through the centuries and is followed by believers throughout the world. Their “Christian year” always starts the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which this year falls on December 3 (so Happy New Year!)
This first season of the church calendar, referred to as Advent, is a season to build our expectation for the coming of Christ, which we celebrate on Christmas. Advent literally means “coming,” referring to the coming of Christ. It’s approximately four weeks long but varies because Christmas always falls on a different day of the week.
However, it always has four Sundays and each of these Sundays has a different theme:
- Hope: The first Sunday of Advent helps to stir up a hope and longing for the coming of Christ, much like the nation of Israel had at the time of Jesus’ birth.
- Love: The second Sunday of Advent reminds us about the great love that God and Jesus have for us, and we are encouraged to love others as a result.
- Joy: The third Sunday reminds us of the excitement the angel shared with the shepherds on the night Jesus was born: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be for all people” (Luke 2:10). That joy is now ours in Christ!
- Peace: The last Sunday of Advent reminds us of the peace we have with God as a result of Christ’s coming.
These themes are carried out throughout the week and are highlighted in the Scripture readings that are read in all of their churches.
Since the theme for this Sunday is hope, the Scripture readings are from Isaiah 64:1–9; Psalm 80:1–7,17–19; 1 Corinthians 1:3–9; and Mark 13:24–37. These Scripture passages are being read in every church led by a Gospel for Asia-supported pastor—and throughout the rest of the world—this Sunday. In more than 300 languages, messages of hope will be spoken by GFA-supported missionaries, and millions of hearts will be directed to the coming of Christ.
In fact, if you want to read the exact same Scripture passages that our fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord will be reading, you can sign up for our daily Advent readings and prayers to help keep your heart directed toward Christ this season in the Advent.
Christian Traditions, not Cultural or Family
As I thought about how our Asian brothers and sisters described how they celebrate Christ’s coming, three things stuck out:
- Most of their traditions were in the Advent season, not on Christmas Day.
- Their traditions, though new to them, were similar to what had been practiced for centuries by Christians around the world.
- Their traditions centered on the Gospel and sharing the hope, love and joy of Christ with others in the hope that they, too, would find the peace that only Christ can give.
The amazing thing about what Raju and other Asian believers shared is that—even though they were first-generation believers—their traditions provide us with a blueprint of Christmas celebrations without the blemish of American materialism, which has, unfortunately, enraptured the Church. These Christ-centered practices are ancient in origin yet expressed in a way that is totally within the context of their Asian culture.
Centering Our Year on Jesus Christ
Celebrations, especially on holy days or holidays, form an important part of every culture, whether religious or secular. As the Church has grown throughout the ages, the Church calendar, with its season and holy days, has helped shape a Christ-centered Church that is consistent regardless of its surrounding culture or the era in which the Church finds itself. The Church traditions of Advent and Christmas can also help believers fend off counter-Christian practices of the surrounding cultures and unite believers around the world.
Longing for the Advent of the Christ
Prior to John the Baptist showing up on the scene, there were “four hundred years of silence.” The last passages of the Old Testament were delivered by the prophet Malachi around 400 B.C. and there had been no new, God-given revelation since then. With the Roman occupation and oppression in Judea, hearts and nation were longing for the coming Messiah (that is Christ) to deliver them. The coming of the Christ was the hope of the nation.
In the first pages of the New Testament, when the silence is broken, it does not begin with telling us that Jesus was born but starts with building the expectation for His advent. The Apostle Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, showing that based on the generations, it was time for the Messiah to come. Luke starts with the angel Gabriel appearing to Zechariah. The coming of the Messiah is at the door! Any time now!
Next, Gabriel appears to an unsuspecting virgin in Nazareth, by the name of Mary. The tension increases as we see that she’s betrothed to a man named Joseph who could easily dismiss and shame her. But he doesn’t. Instead, they make the long trip to Bethlehem, and the Messiah’s birth is heralded by the host of heaven!
The church calendar follows this same pattern. Advent provides a space for us in which our expectation of Christmas is built. The Scriptures that are read, the sermons that are preached and the familiarity of the season remind us to look expectantly to Christmas, to the coming of Christ. But it also, encourages us to look for His second coming now.
Sharing the Love
Gospel for Asia-supported missionaries and believers in 14 Asian countries are busy preparing for all the different programs they will have leading up to Christmas. These programs start this week, and their primary focus will be sharing the hope that we, as believers, have in Jesus. Raju and other believers are preparing Christmas carols, Scripture readings about the Christmas story, and cultural dances done to Christian songs that visually help tell the story about Jesus. Every program will have a clear presentation of the love and salvation that is in Jesus Christ. In many places, these celebrations will often include Christmas gifts to the poor to help them escape the cycle of poverty—a tangible expression of Christ’s love and what He has done for us spiritually.
The main thrust of these programs will be to take the love and hope of Christ to those in the surrounding cultures. For many, this will be the first time they’ve heard the good news of Jesus, and as a result, this Christmas will be the first Christmas many celebrate as believers!
As I prepared to celebrate Christmas with Raju and my other Asian brothers and sisters, I was trying not to be agitated about how different their celebration was compared to my own. No one bought me a present. There was none of the familiar traditional American food. No Christmas tree. I wasn’t even invited into a family’s home. Instead, we gathered as a church; we celebrated, as a Christ-centered community, the Savior who had come into the world to make us one.
Once I was able to let go of my cross-cultural shock, I was actually captivated by how appropriate a way this is to celebrate Christmas. A common meal was being shared by believers in congregations throughout Asia. For many people joining the celebration, they had never even heard of Jesus this time last year, and through the faithful witness of the believers—and for some, because of the Advent programs—they were now celebrating their first Christmas.
Old Dogs Learning New Tricks
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because we have generations and generations of Christmas tradition that we have it right compared to our first-generation brothers and sisters. But as I listened to dozens of Asian believers tell me their Advent and Christmas traditions, I was reminded how “on-fire” new believers often seem compared to us in the faith who have known Jesus and have maybe left our first love (Rev. 2:4-5).
I realized that most of my family’s Christmas and Advent traditions growing up didn’t really center on Christ. Except for going to a Christmas service, they were family traditions, not church traditions. Even the Advent calendars I opened every year had little to do with Jesus, but became a countdown to opening presents.
These new believers practice many of the historic traditions of the Church, but they—like the angels in the Gospel of Luke—are using them to proclaim Christ’s coming to the world. Their traditions make Christ known and help them to love those who won’t love them back. Because of this, Christ will be born into the hearts of many people this Advent.
Maybe if we learn from our Asian brothers and sisters, we can recapture Christmas by revamping some of our holiday traditions. We can use the Advent season to kindle our first love for Jesus and share the hope, love, joy and peace we have in Him with those who don’t know Him.
We can use GFA’s Christmas Gift Catalog to give to “the least of these” and escape the materialist traditions of the season. Share the Forgotten Christmas video during Advent Sunday services. Consider organizing Christmas caroling, and hand out gospel tracts and hot chocolate to your neighbors.
However you celebrate, we can listen to John the Baptist’s admonition to “Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight. … And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” —Luke 3:4 & 6
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