For younger ex-evangelicals, discovering the historic liturgies of the church after being raised in the “thin-lyrics” of megachurch worship (what I once called “feel-good pep rally” worship), the church calendar has been all the rage for the past few decades. I was one of those who learned much from Bob Webber in my undergrad days, following him to Northern Seminary. Back then, we were all hungering for worship with more substance and formation in our life with God. The church calendar was a breath of fresh air. It gave a narrative structure to worship and a historic depth that shaped the soul in the story of God. Worship was now so much bigger than me and my experience. It gave me an experience grounded in the big reality of God, who God is, and his work down through the ages.
The Wonder of Advent
It’s from this space that I come to the great season of Advent. Advent is the time when Christians recognize both the second coming of Christ that lies in our future and the lead up to the first coming at Bethlehem. We develop the patience, anticipation, preparation, and remembrance that must necessarily precede the celebration of the first coming of the Son at Christmas. One of the books that became a primer for me in all these things was Webber’s Ancient-Future Time. In this Advent time, we learn to live with patience and expectation between the first coming and the second coming. Advent affords us the wherewithal to learn the dispositions of love, joy, hope, and peace that we must tend to if indeed we are to receive the Christ child and his holy presence into our lives, and live in hopeful anticipation of the final completion of the Kingdom in Christ’s second coming. If we can allow ourselves to be taken along, we will experience the sheer wonder of it all.
One of the Advent themes I love that has become so central to my own work is the notion acted out by John the Baptist of “preparing the way of the Lord”. Imagine our God coming into the world, humbly, vulnerably, as a babe in a manger. And so, because he comes in such a humble way, this God could easily be missed. We must, therefore, be like John the Baptist: prepare the way for the Lord to come, open space for him to be present and be recognized among us. We must wait, not be in control. We must make space for him in our lives. This is the nature of our God who comes at Christmas. I don’t know where my Christian life would be apart from this central insight learned in the process of Advent.
But I am concerned that this liturgical way, steeped in hundreds of years of traditions, creates an in-club of the liturgically highly-motivated (or those who were baptized and grew up in liturgical high church). Could it be that liturgy then separates those in the church from those who have not yet been initiated? Does liturgy make engaging those outside the Christian faith even more difficult? What about the “rest of us”—I’m including myself now in the outside group—who can’t get it? How can we experience the wonders of Advent?Could it be that liturgy then separates those in the church from those who have not yet been initiated? Does liturgy make engaging those outside the Christian faith even more difficult? Click To Tweet
The Ascetic Temptation at Advent
In this regard, I’ve noticed something happening this past decade in the practice of Advent that I am not happy about. It is a tendency within some ex-evangelical-turned-liturgical Christians to scold and chastise Christians for celebrating Christmas too early. We must wait, they say, we must learn the patience of Advent. How dare we celebrate Christmas and cave in to the cultural pressure to make Christmas a month or two-long affair of consumerist indulgence? In the process, I fear we turn Advent into another ascetic practice akin to Lent. Do we really need another Lent in the Christian calendar?
I of course am sympathetic to the church being a place of resistance to the consumer-indulgent culture all around us, especially at Christmas. It’s one of many reasons I helped lead the liturgical turn twenty years ago. I think Advent, when well led, is a calming and shaping alternative to our culture. It invites us to go deeper into the coming of our Lord. But in the process of becoming a liturgically-formed resister of culture, I fear some have moved Advent into becoming the other extreme—a time to scold people, take a better-than-thou attitude, and chasten people to take on the pain of buckling down and wait this season out for Jesus to come.
But I push back. Jesus has come. We must learn patience, I agree. But his risen presence is very much in and among the church, bringing in his future coming. I fear by emphasizing the ascetic part of Advent we miss all the ways Advent invites us to see hope, see love, see peace, and see his presence at work in and around us. I fear we miss the experience of great joy in anticipation. I fear we Christians miss celebrating these realities in anticipation of the great coming of Christ at Christmas. It seems we need these famous Advent virtues—hope, love, joy, peace—more than ever, and they need not be only ascetic.
The Hunger in Our Culture
There’s a hunger in our secularized culture for more, so much more, from Christmas than what we’re offered on the Hallmark Channel. The secularized Christmas of our culture remains haunted by a former meaning it cannot seem to grasp, yet knows it is missing. With our Advent scolding, I worry. Have we in fact become sectarians withdrawing from the culture’s Christmas and losing the opportunity to engage this hunger?Have we in fact become sectarians withdrawing from the culture’s Christmas and losing the opportunity to engage this hunger? Click To Tweet
Advent was the last of the great Christian seasons implemented into the Western church calendar. Easter/Lent were first. Eastertide followed. Epiphany, of course, came very early. Christmas and Advent came later depending on which history you read. When the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christmas was supposedly established to coincide with the feast called Saturnalia that celebrated the solstice, the date at which the Sun returned and the days started getting longer. This was a season of festive partying celebrating the coming of the Sun. Along the way, lighting candles as a symbol of the light of Christmas coming entered the tradition. Some have seen the coincidence of Advent with the Jewish celebration of the feast of lights as not coincidental. And so it seems, Advent/Christmas has always been associated with certain non-Christian (some say pagan) cultural events. Some have even claimed Christmas to be a pagan holiday (the Puritans refused to practice it for a while because of this). The Christmas tree, mistletoe, and several other Christmas traditions were attempts by Christians to assimilate to non-Christian festive practices within various pagan Euro cultures. In many ways, hasn’t the Advent season always been birthed to engage, expose the lacks, and deepen the cultural practices surrounding the church at the time and point them to Christ?
And so it seems to me we should not have to choose between Advent as formation for Christians and Advent as the possibility to engage those outside the liturgical traditions for the church. We can embrace both 1) Advent as formation into the depths of Christ, the story of who he is and his coming, and the virtues we need to live into him; and, 2) Advent as the possibility to engage those in our culture at Christmastime looking for, longing for a deeper sense of life, relationship, God, family. Let’s do both! Let’s have Advent for deep formation of Christians who are already initiated into liturgy as well as Advent for the rest of us (who are outside liturgical formation).
We who grew up evangelical as Christians are longing for a deeper Christian experience of God. We tend to focus on Advent-for-us, for those who are Christians already but have experienced a lack in our previous forms of worship. But to pursue liturgy for our own depths of formation and ignore the cultural engagement of those outside the faith is a luxury of Christendom. For those of us living in post-Christendom, where the worlds around us still celebrate the vestiges of Christmas along with what’s left of love, peace, joy, and hope, we have to find ways to offer this world an avenue to the depths of the Jesus Christ of Advent. To those haunted by the depths of what Christmas once was, but is no longer there due to the secular rules of a secular pluralized Christmas, let us offer Advent for “the rest of us.” Think of the depths of love, joy, hope, and peace we Christians can offer the world through the stories, liturgies, and celebrations of Advent.To pursue liturgy for our own depths of formation and ignore the cultural engagement of those outside the faith is a luxury of Christendom. Click To Tweet
A Post-COVID Call for Advent Celebrations
Advent 2020 is weird. Many of us cannot even gather for a candlelight service this Advent season. So I might just be offering suggestions for next year: Advent post-COVID-19. Nonetheless, I invite us to think about how we can offer Advent to the world. I’m not just talking about making our Advent liturgies (once we gather again) more accessible next year. I’m talking about having unusual kinds of parties, where we celebrate all the places the light of Christ has revealed himself this past year. Where we can testify to his presence, in the waiting, in the struggles. Where we celebrate examples of love in action, in depths not known by the world very much. Let us raise a few toasts to the hope of Christ’s presence in our lives in the new year. Let us invite people longing to celebrate Christmas in a different way. And YES! let’s do it in Advent season as a form of anticipation. Have an all-church gala! Invite friends from all walks of life. Perform acts of poetry, art, and music that point to this kind of love, hope, patience, peace. I’ll call it “Advent for the rest of us.” We need this. We need this now and in the years to come.