What is Advent?
Introduction to Advent
How Can Advent Make A Difference in Your Relationship with God?
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2011 by Mark D. Roberts and Patheos.com
Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you acknowledge the source of this material: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/. For all other uses, please contact me at email@example.com. Thank you.
If you’re looking for a more general discussion of the Christian year (liturgical year, Christian calendar, church year, etc.), please check this series: Introduction to the Christian Year.
How to Experience the Power of Waiting on God at Christmastime
My e-book on Advent is now available:
My writing on Advent, fully refreshed, with new stories, illustrations, and applications. Includes an Advent Devotional Guide using an Advent wreath.
The Advent of Advent
This coming Sunday is the first day of Advent. If you’ve been reading my blog for more than a year, you know that I generally make a big deal out of Advent. If you’re new to my blog, however, you may wonder why I bother. My goal in this post is to explain what Advent is. My next post in this series will make the case for taking Advent seriously.
When is Advent?
Advent is a season in the Christian year that lasts for about four weeks. It begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve, thus there is some variation in its length. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of Christian seasons, you might find helpful a series I’ve written called: Introduction to the Christian Year. I should mention that Eastern Orthodox Christians do not recognize Advent per se, but have a longer season that is rather like Advent. Their Nativity Fast begins in the middle of November and is a season for repentance and abstinence.
In our secular American celebration of Christmas, the Christmas season (or holiday season, ugh) begins in the weeks prior to Christmas Day. Generally, this season starts in early December, though retailers have a bad habit of beginning Christmas in November (or even October). In my rule book, you shouldn’t listen to Christmas music or turn on Christmas lights until after you’ve finished the Thanksgiving turkey . . . at the earliest. Of course outside of my immediate family, nobody follows my rules . . . especially retailers.
So Advent overlaps with what is usually thought of in American culture as the Christmas season. But its beginning and ending are well defined, and its themes are quite a bit different from what is commonly associated with secular Christmas celebrations.
What is Advent?
The Christian season of Christmas actually begins on Christmas Eve and lasts for twelve days, ending on January 6. (No, the twelve-day season of Christmas did not start with the song. It was the other way around.) The time before Christmas is Advent, a season of preparation for Christmas. Christians prepare for celebrating the birth of Jesus by remembering the longing of the Jews for a Messiah. In Advent, we’re reminded of how much we ourselves also need a Savior, and we look forward to our Savior’s second coming even as we prepare to celebrate his first coming at Christmas. The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “visit.” In the season with this name, we keep in mind both “advents” of Christ, the first in Bethlehem and the second yet to come.
If you’re unfamiliar with Advent, I expect it might feel odd to think of the weeks before Christmas as something more than Christmastime. For most of my life, Advent played very little role in my pre-Christmas consciousness. As a child, I did have Advent calendars: sturdy, decorative paper displays with 25 little “windows,” one of which I would open each day of December leading up to Christmas. Sometimes Advent calendars are made of wood and feature twenty-five little boxes, each containing some little treasure (see photo). My Advent calendar was a way to whet my appetite for Christmas, not that I needed much help to get ready for my favorite day of the year, mind you.
I loved Christmas when I was young, partly because it celebrated the birth of Jesus, but mostly because it was a giant party in which I received lots of presents. In a sense, the Christian observance is a bit like my boyhood Advent calendars, though it has a much more serious purpose. It’s meant to get us ready, not for a present-opening party, but for a transformational celebration of the birth of Jesus.
What Colors Are Used in Advent?
There are a few other things about Advent, besides its themes, that you might find odd if you’re unfamiliar with the season. The strangest might be the Advent color scheme. We associate Christmas and the weeks leading up to it with typical Christmas colors: red, green, white, silver, and gold. Advent, on the other hand, features purple (or dark blue) and pink. The purple/blue color signifies seriousness, repentance, and royalty. Pink points to the minor theme of Advent, which is joy. For many observers of Advent, the first, second, and fourth Sundays of Advent are “purple/blue” Sundays. Only the third is a “pink” Sunday. The pink, joyful color reminds us that, even as Advent helps us get in touch with our sober yearning for God to come to us, we know that he did in fact come in the person of Jesus.
Thus, our major-theme of waiting has a grace note of joy mixed in. If you’ve seen a traditionally-colored Advent wreath will recognize the purple and pink colors of this season (with the central, white, Christ-candle for Christmas Eve/Day). But if you’re unfamiliar with Advent and happen to attend a church service in early December in a church that recognizes Advent, you might be startled to see lots of purple, a bit of pink, and no red or green. (Many churches combine the colors of Advent and Christmas, however, so visitors won’t be completely perplexed. Advent purists don’t approve of such a mix, but I think we need to be gracious in our response to the Advent traditions of others. )
Advent’s Growing Popularity
Advent doesn’t get much attention compared to Christmas, though interest in Advent is growing steadily in many churches and in many Christian homes. That’s not to say everybody is an “Adventophile,” a lover of Advent, however. Some Protestants ignore Advent because it isn’t taught in Scripture and because they associate it with Roman Catholicism. Secular culture ignores Advent because there isn’t much money to be made here. I suppose you might be able to make a few bucks selling purple and pink candles, but this isn’t going to thrill most retailers.
I think, however, there are lots of good reasons to pay more attention to Advent, however. I’ll begin to explore these in my next post in this series.
I have written a devotional guide for Advent. It is based on Scripture, and is meant to be used with an Advent wreath. This devotional is simple and can be used in families with young children. It can also be adapted for other uses, such as Advent-themed worship services or personal devotions. You are welcome to download the Advent Devotional Guide and use it as you see fit.
How I First Learned About Advent
In yesterday’s post, I explained the timing and purpose of Advent, as well as its unexpected color scheme. I closed by noting that Advent is growing in popularity, especially among Protestant Christians who, in many cases, did not grow up with much awareness of Advent. Liturgically sophisticated Protestants, such as Lutherans and Episcopalians, generally are familiar with Advent, but many have just the slightest understanding of this season. For most of my life, I fell into that category. Though, as I noted in my last post, I enjoyed paper Advent calendars in my youth, I did not think of Advent as a season of the Christian year. In fact, I had no idea that Christians even had a year with special seasons. At the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood where I grew up, we celebrated Christmas and Easter, and that was about it. The weeks of December prior to Christmas were Christmastime, not Advent.
When I was a teenager, Lloyd Ogilvie came as Senior Pastor of Hollywood Pres. He brought with him the tradition of using an Advent wreath in worship services prior to Christmas. Though we continued to sing Christmas carols and decorate the sanctuary with Christmas colors, Dr. Ogilvie did, however, speak of Advent as a season of preparation for Christmas. Still, I thought of Advent mostly as Christmas-lite, and not as a distinct season with distinct emphases.
While I was preparing for ordination in the Presbyterian Church, I took a course in “polity” (church order) at Fuller Theological Seminary. The professor, Dr. Gary Demarest, lectured on a section of the PC(USA) Book of Order that focused on worship. In this lecture, he spoke with zeal about the “Church Year” and its various seasons. These included: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. Dr. Demarest talked excitedly about how the seasons of the Church Year could enrich the worship of a church as well as one’s private devotions. I had never heard anything like this. I was intrigued, but didn’t do much with what I learned at that time. I was serving on the staff at Hollywood Pres, where we continued to use an Advent wreath in our pre-Christmas worship services, but otherwise didn’t do much with Advent.
My first full exposure to Advent came when I began as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in 1991. It started with a complaint, of all things. Funny how that happens in church! Sometime in November, a member of the church came to me to let me know how unhappy she was that “Loren doesn’t let us sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve.” I asked why Loren, our worship director at the time, had this peculiar proscription. “Because he’s into Advent,” the woman explained. “He wants to sing only Advent songs during Advent.”
What I heard about Loren seemed odd to me for many reasons, partly because I could only think of two Advent hymns: “Come, Though Long Expected Jesus” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It was hard to imagine four weeks of nothing but these songs, as wonderful as they might be.
When I talked with Loren, I learned that the complaint I had heard was only partly true. Apparently, in years past, Loren had virtually outlawed Christmas music during Advent. He had reserved the beloved carols for Christmas Eve and the twelve-day season of Christmas that ended on January 6. But when many people in the congregation let Loren know how much they missed singing Christmas carols prior to Christmas, he relented. Now his plan was to start Advent with music that was Advent-themed, and slowly include Christmas carols in the Sundays prior to Christmas. A few carols, however, like “Joy to the World,” were reserved for Christmas Eve and thereafter. (This was ironic, because “Joy to the World” was not actually written as a Christmas carol!)
As I spoke with Loren, reassured that he wasn’t banning Christmas music altogether before Christmas Eve, I listened to his passion for Advent and the possibilities of our worship and devotional life being enriched by observing this season. I was excited by the potential and eager to experience a more intentional and complete Advent season.
During my first Advent at Irvine Presbyterian Church, I did find it odd to sing relatively few Christmas carols before Christmas Eve. And I did find much of the Advent music to be unfamiliar. We used the Advent wreath in worship, with its expressions of expectation and hope. Though I missed some of what I had always associated with the build up to Christmas, I found that Advent did indeed heighten my yearning for the coming of Christ, and it did indeed help me to experience Christmas in a deeper way.
Christmas of 1991, my first at Irvine Presbyterian Church, was the beginning of my becoming an Adventophile . . . an Advent lover.
Why I am an “Adventophile”
In my last post in this series, I told the story of my Advent beginnings. When I 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.
In 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.
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 office 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 Savior’s birth.
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.
Growing Closer to God in Advent: Some Practical Suggestions
So far in this series I’ve explained what Advent is and why I have found it helpful to observe Advent. If you’re at all convinced, you may wonder what to do about it. In this post and the next in this series I’ll outline some practical suggestions for how you might experience Advent.
Pay Attention to the Advent Content of Corporate Worship
If your church celebrates Advent, be ready to pay close attention to the readings, prayers, songs, and seasonal pageantry (like the lighting of the Advent wreath). Your intentionality in worship can infuse your whole life with Advent expectation.
Many churches, even if they don’t plunge into the depths of Advent, nevertheless wade into Advent themes in their pre-Christmas worship. They use readings from the Old Testament prophets or sing Advent carols like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The more you pay attention to these Advent elements, the more your personal experience will be enriched.
If your church doesn’t acknowledge Advent, you may decide to talk with your pastor or worship leader about it. But, please, be kind and encouraging! Throughout my years as a parish pastor, I found it much easier to receive “Here’s something I find exciting!” than “Here’s what you’re doing wrong!”
Enjoy Advent Music
This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, unfortunately. There are hundreds of popular Christmas songs and carols, played everywhere during Advent, from churches, to gas stations and shopping malls. There are comparatively few Advent songs, though many songs and carols do touch upon Advent themes of waiting, hoping, and yearning for God.
If you enjoy classical music, there are a few Advent albums available, including:
Advent at St. Paul’s. This is my current favorite of the bunch.
The first part of the so-called “Christmas portion” Handel’s Messiah is filled with Advent themes (from the beginning through “The People That Walked in Darkness”). This is probably the most readily available and familiar classical Advent music. My favorite recording of the Messiah is the Academy of Ancient Music version conducted by Christopher Hogwood.
If you’re looking for more contemporary Advent music, you’ll have to look pretty hard. There just isn’t much out there that is specifically focused on Advent and its themes. I have found one more contemporary Advent CD. Actually, it combines Advent music with Lenten music. Prepare the Way of the Lord by David Phillips contains 18 instrumental tracks, half dedicated to Advent, the other half dedicated to Lent. This is a wonderful collection of music by an accomplished Christian pianist. You can purchase the CD from Amazon, or you can download an MP3 version from David Phillips’ website.
In the past few years, I have come to enjoy listening to instrumental versions of Christmas hymns and carols during Advent. I save the Christmas lyrics for later on. My favorite recordings are by Jeff Johnson and his collaborators. Some of Jeff’s renditions appeared on Windham Hill collections in the past. Jeff has several Christmas albums. My favorite is A Quiet Knowing Christmas. Its simplicity and elegance helps draw me close to God. You can purchase Jeff’s marvelous Christmas music from his website, from iTunes, or from Amazon.
Use an Advent Wreath in Your Home
You can get Advent wreath kits online or from most Christian bookstores. But you can easily make your own with a wreath (natural or artificial) and five candles. (Photo: The Advent wreath in my home.)
If you aren’t sure what to do with an Advent wreath, I’ve written a guide that you can access by clicking here. Feel free to adapt it as you see fit, or to use it in ministry settings.
Let Your Nativity Scene Function as an Advent Calendar
I have not done this before, but I have friends who do. They have nativity scenes with lots of characters. They time the setting up of their nativity scene so that they add one character each day, adding the Christ child on Christmas (or Christmas Eve). This can also be a wonderful family tradition that involves each member, especially younger children.
Dress for Advent
It’s common for people to wear Christmas colors throughout the month of December, so why not Advent colors? I used to do this when I led worship at Irvine Presbyterian Church, wearing a purple tie in the more traditional services and a purple sweater in the contemporary services. These days, I wear purple ties to work during the first part of Advent, before I transition to Christmas ties (which I won’t get to wear unless I use them in the days leading up to Christmas).
Focus in Your Personal Devotions on Advent Themes
There are many texts, both in the Old Testament and New Testament, that express Advent themes. By reading and meditating on these passages you’ll enhance your Advent experience of God. Some possibilities for Advent Bible readings can be found in my Advent Devotional Guide.
Do Acts of Kindness and Justice that Inflame Your Hope for God’s Future
Advent is a season to consider both “advents” of Jesus. When Jesus comes again as a victorious King, he will usher in the Kingdom of God with all of its blessings. God’s peace and justice will fill the earth. There will be no more sorrow or tears. People will turn implements of war into tools to produce food, and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). It’s easy for those of us who live in safety, comfort, and prosperity to neglect a godly hope for the coming of the kingdom and all of its benefits. Yet, this hope can be inflamed within us when we reach out to share life with and care for people in need, for the hungry and homeless, for victims of injustice and oppression, for those who suffer from sickness or sadness. Advent can be a time to touch those in need, not only so that we might share God’s love with them, but also so that our yearning for the kingdom might be renewed within us.
Tomorrow I’ll add one more way to observe Advent. This I count as my greatest Advent discovery. Stay tuned . . . .
Sharing My Greatest Advent Discovery
Earlier in this series I spoke of discovering Advent. Of course I didn’t discover it in the way an explorer discovers a place no one has been before. Millions upon millions of Christians have observed Advent for centuries upon centuries. (Check this short history of Advent.) I’ve been a Johnny-come-lately. My discovery of Advent was more like when I find some fantastic natural oasis that’s been around for a long time, but, for some reason, I hadn’t ever visited.
What I want to write about today isn’t my discovery of Advent as an opportunity for growing in my relationship with God, but rather my accidental (providential?) discovery of one way to observe Advent that has made a huge difference in my life.
It came in a most unlikely place . . . standing in line at Costco. Now you need to understand that I am terrible at waiting, especially in long checkout lines. Some time ago, I was rushing to get a couple of items at the market. I picked a short “Ten items or less” line, hoping to buy my stuff and get going. Of course, the person in front of me wanted to use a gift card, but the gift card couldn’t be read electronically. The checker knew there was a way to enter the gift card number manually, but he wasn’t sure how to do it. So he had to call his manager. Five minutes later, I was still standing in that “short” line, watching other lines moving swiftly. My teeth were grinding and my stomach was churning. Mostly, I was mad at myself for picking the wrong line.
My impatience with slow checkout lines makes me an especially lousy Christmas shopper, because, almost by definition, Christmas shopping requires waiting in line (unless, of course, you are able to do all of your shopping online!) Whether you’re at a fine department store or just grabbing some chips from the local mini-mart, chances are you’ll be waiting in line during the month of December. And, if you’re like me, inevitably you’ll end up in the slowest line in the store. This sort of thing can just about ruin the Christmas season for me, because waiting makes me grumpy.
Okay, enough with the confession, now to the discovery.
A few years ago I was waiting in a long line at the Costco in Irvine, California. In spite of my best efforts to find the shortest line, of course I ended up in the slowest moving line of all. As I stood there, I could feel my blood pressure rising. The more I waited, the more frustrated I became. Words I never say (well, almost never) filled my mind, and I’m not referring to “Happy Holidays.” “Why do I always get in the slowest *^%#($ line?” I asked myself. “And why is this taking so *#^($& long?” I grumbled under my breath. (Photo: Waiting in line at Costco)
Then, all of a sudden, it dawned on me. I had one of those moments of grace in which God managed to slip a word into my consciousness. As I stood in that slow-moving line at Costco, I was waiting. Waiting! In a way, I was experiencing exactly what Advent is all about. Of course I wasn’t waiting for God to save me or anything momentous like that. I was simply waiting to get out of that store so I could go home. But, nevertheless, I was waiting. I was forced to experience something that’s at the very heart of Advent.
So I decided, right then and there in the line at Costco, that I was going to use the experience of waiting in line while Christmas shopping as an Advent reminder. In that moment, and in similar moments yet to come, I was going to remember what Advent is all about. I was going to put myself back into the shoes of the Jews who were waiting for the Messiah. And I was going to remember that I too am waiting for Christ to return.
As I decided to let the experience of forced waiting be a moment of Advent reflection rather than a cause for getting an ulcer, I found my anger quickly drain away. Waiting in line at Costco became, not a trial to be endured, but a moment of grace. And get this: I even found myself thanking God for the chance to slow down a bit and wait. This was, indeed, a miracle.
By the time I got to check out, my heart was peaceful, even joyous. I felt as if I had discovered hidden treasure. But I didn’t want to keep it hidden. The next Sunday I shared my discovery with my congregation at Irvine Presbyterian Church. In the days that followed, many of my flock told me how much their Advent had been improved by thinking of waiting in line, not as a curse, but as a potential blessing.
Honestly, I can still forget my commitment to use waiting in line as a time for Advent reflection. My gut instinct can take over. I can easily start clenching my fists as I think of how much time I’m losing. But then a gentle breeze from the Spirit will remind me of how waiting can enrich my life, rather than rob me of joy.
Come to think of it, the grace of waiting in line during Advent might also be relevant to one of my other giant pet peeves: heavy traffic! Traffic is often worse during the season of Advent as people are rushing to the malls to shop for gifts. But I wonder if it’s possible to allow the hassle of traffic to serve as a reminder of Advent waiting.
In the last few years, what I hate most about the days prior to Christmas – waiting in line – has become a quasi-sacrament, a time to experience God’s grace. If you’ve never tried this, it may sound to you as if I’ve lost my mind. This sounds even sillier than wearing purple in the weeks before Christmas rather than red and green. But let me encourage you to try it. By experiencing waiting in line not as a punishment, but as a opportunity to wait peacefully, you’ll find a bit of grace, hidden and ready to be discovered, much like a little picture behind one of those doors of an Advent calendar.
Is Advent Biblical?
Earlier in this series I mentioned the fact that many Protestant Christians reject Advent because they consider it to be a Roman Catholic practice. For most of these people, it isn’t so much the Roman Catholic aspect of Advent that is truly problematic, but the fact that Advent is not taught in Scripture. You can’t turn to a place in the Bible and find teaching on Advent or a command to set aside four weeks prior to Christmas as a season of waiting, hoping, and yearning.
Does this mean that biblically-oriented Christians shouldn’t observe Advent? For some, the answer is “Yes.” If it’s not explicitly taught in Scripture, then Christians shouldn’t do it. You’ll find that kind of argument among non-instrumental Church of Christ believers, for example. Since instruments are not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament teachings about worship, then we shouldn’t use instruments today.
So what about Advent? Does its absence from Scripture mean we shouldn’t observe it?
If you buy that argument, then you must also abstain from Christian celebrations of Christmas and Easter, which also aren’t found in Scripture. You might as well throw out Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving too, since none of these are mentioned in Scripture. (I suppose you could find a way to derive Thanksgiving from the Jewish festival of Sukkoth (Tabernacles), though it wouldn’t fall on the fourth Thursday in November and it wouldn’t involve eating Turkey or watching football.) Moreover, if you really believe that Christians can only do that which is explicitly taught in Scripture, then you shouldn’t go a to a church building for worship, or sit in pews or chairs, or use microphones, or wear pants, or use hymnals, or use digital projectors, or . . . . Honestly, I don’t know any Christian who actually lives consistently by the “I don’t do it if it’s not in Scripture rule,” though I admire the intent of those who try.
I believe that we are free in Christ to do many things that are not specifically taught in Scripture. To a certain extent, I agree with those who argue that if something is not prohibited in the Bible, then it’s okay for Christians. (Of course this argument has limits. I had a Christian friend in high school who used this argument to defend her use of marijuana, since it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible. The rest of my Christian friends and I were persuaded that the analogy of drunkenness applied to getting high on pot. Thus we believed marijuana use to be sinful.) Surely there is nothing in Scripture that prohibits one from observing Advent. No matter what you think of it, Advent surely doesn’t fall into the “illegal drugs” category of no-nos.
But I’m not concerned merely with whether Advent is not disallowed in Scripture. I want to know if observing Advent is consistent with biblical themes and priorities. Is Advent biblical in this grander sense? Could the observance of Advent help one to grow in faith in a way that aligns with biblical faith?
Yes, I think so. For a moment, forget about Advent itself, and answer the following questions:
• Is it a good thing for us Christians to set aside a special time in the year to focus more on God and grow in our relationship with him?
• Is it good for us to get in touch with just how much we need a Savior?
•Is it helpful for us to wait on the Lord and to learn to wait upon him more faithfully?
• Is it helpful to remember our hope in God and to be refreshed in that hope?
• Would it be a valuable thing in your life to be prepared to celebrate the true meaning of the Incarnation?
• Would you like to experience more of God’s peace and presence during the often hectic weeks prior to Christmas?
• Would your faith be enriched if you were to read, study, and meditate on biblical texts that speak of the first and second “advents” of Christ?
I think most biblically-oriented Christians would answer these questions in the affirmative. Does that mean we all should observe Advent? Of course not. We are free to do so or not to do so, according to our consciences and sense of God’s leading. But it’s not hard to see how Advent (or something like it) could be beneficial for most Christians.
If you’re looking for biblical passages that express Advent themes, you might think of such texts as:
Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! (Psalm 27:14)
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. (Psalm 62:5-7)
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. (Psalm 130:5-6)
O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities. (Psalm 130:7-8)
[T]hose who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isa 40:31)
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:18-25)
Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. (1 Peter 1:13)
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)
Of course then there are lots of biblical passages that focus even more specifically on Advent themes and hopes associated with the coming of the Messiah. You can find these in my Advent Devotional Guide.
So, though it’s correct to say that Advent itself is not taught in Scripture, and therefore Christians are free to observe it or not, it is equally correct to say that the emphases of Advent are thoroughly biblical. If the traditions of Advent help us to focus more on the Lord, to get in touch with our need for him, to replenish our hope, and to celebrate Christmas with greater meaning and depth, then I’m all fer it, as we say in Texas.