In the years following my Advent beginnings (see this recent post), 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, where I served as senior pastor. 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.
Later, 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. This tree was covered with, you guessed it, purple ornaments and lights. 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 thirteen 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.