© 2015 Dispensational Publishing House, Inc. Used by permission.
“We’ve never done that here before.”
That brief statement was intended to provide a comprehensive resolution to my introduction of an Advent candle into the services of the church I pastored several years ago. I had asked each of the deacons to begin one of the morning services during the four Sundays of Advent by lighting an Advent candle and sharing a two-minute testimony regarding the importance of the season.
I thought that the mounting popularity of Advent calendars, candles and wreaths within evangelical (i.e., non-liturgical) churches would allow our small fellowship to enjoy this simple ceremony—possibly forging a meaningful new tradition. At least it would be better than two more minutes of announcements, I surmised.
I was mistaken. My attempt to bring a touch of seasonal formalism into the worship service of our humble Baptist church proved to be an experiment in futility rather than a foundation for a new church rite.
Still the honest question remains, should we celebrate Advent?
In recent years the term has become ubiquitous even within the non-liturgical circles of evangelical and fundamental Christianity—where the church calendar is followed selectively, at most.
So how should we handle this subject? Here are a few introductory thoughts:
Advent is centered around a biblical idea.
The season of Advent is a period that leads up to the remembrance of the first coming of Christ.
There is little that is biblically objectionable related to this basic concept.
One source states: “The word ‘Advent’ is derived from the Latin word adventus, meaning ‘coming,’ which is a translation of the Greek word parousia.”1 Occasionally we even speak of Christ’s second coming in this way—as His second advent.
During Advent, Christians often essentially reconstruct the experience of Old Testament saints who anticipated Christ’s first coming (cf. Luke 2:26, 38). A common way of doing so is by studying the prophecies of that coming, as well as Matthew 1 and Luke 1.2
We who expect His second coming can use this time to learn to “wait” (cf. Ps. 27:14, 37:7, 62:1, 5,130:5; Luke 2:25; 1 Cor. 1:7; Gal. 5:5; Phil. 3:20; 1 Thess. 1:10; Heb. 9:28; James 5:7), “watch” (cf. Matt. 24:42-43, 25:13; Mark 13:33; 1 Thess. 5:6; Rev. 3:3, 16:15) and “prepare” (cf. Isa. 40:3; Mal. 3:1; Matt. 3:3, 11:10; Mark 1:2-3; Luke 3:4, 7:27) for all things related to that event.3
Similar to the child who is eager to unwrap the gifts under the Christmas tree, during Advent we annually relive the tensions of all who waited for Christ’s first coming—from Adam (Gen. 3:15) to Zacharias (Luke 1:5-25, 67-79).
Many things associated with the history and practice of Advent are unbiblical or, at best, extra-biblical.
Like many of the products of church history and its theology—given to us, as they were, across a wide array of traditions from throughout the centuries—there are many aspects of Advent, both historically and presently, that we as Bible-believers would not want to identify with. For instance, the mere mention of “penance … and fasting”4 in association with the season helps us understand why there would be cause for concern.5 The Roman Catholic Church also places a great emphasis on Mary during the season of Advent.6
In our church tradition, we find little room for any practice that is not explicitly mandated by Scripture—unless it clearly and practically facilitates a biblical necessity. For instance, we have no problem instituting Sunday School because it helps to accomplish the teaching ministry of the church. But when it comes to placing wreaths, lighting candles or following other extra-biblical formulas, we generally are genuinely suspicious, and with good reason.
If we are speaking in the presence of new or untaught Christians—especially those of a Catholic background—we may therefore need to be sensitive about using the term “Advent” without at least providing some context and explanation (cf. 1 Cor. 8:7).
Most Christians celebrate Advent whether or not they use the term.
If your church offers a series of sermons leading up to—and for the purpose of preparing the congregation for—the coming of Christmas, you are, in essence, observing the basic ideal of Advent.
If you attend a spectacular Christmas play at a large church, or a production of Handel’s Messiah presented by a college choir, you are basically embodying the spirit of Advent.
The Christian who opposes any observance of Advent on the basis of its history and connotations would presumably be consistent only if he or she also rejected the celebration of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. After all, these also come to us by way of that same church calendar (though they are now also adopted into the broader popular culture) rather than by any biblical mandate or precedent.7 Of course, any believers are free to do so without retribution and without fear of doing damage to their spiritual walk (cf. Rom. 14:5-6, Col. 2:16-17), but few seem to choose that course.
Advent and Lent are not necessarily equivalent.
Sometimes a Christian will lump “Advent and Lent” together as if they are inseparable, implying that the practice of either is virtually a mark of heresy.
Both of these seasons are certainly part of the liturgical church year as it has come down to us through the centuries, but Advent8 and Lent9 each have unique histories. Celebrating one does not logically mandate celebrating the other.
As I have argued above, the central truths behind the Advent season are Scripturally sound. While one could possibly use a similar line of argumentation regarding Lent as I have used here for Advent—and could also attempt to redeem it as a time of focus on and preparation for the remembrance of the cross and the empty tomb—the season of Lent appears to be more integrally connected to objectionable practices, both theologically and in terms of its connotations within the wider culture.10 Too often these include a reliance on a temporary and external “form of godliness” (2 Tim. 3:5).
During Lent, professing Christians are tempted to perform actions which they may understand as generating spiritual power and blessing. In comparison, during Advent, Christians—even those who are not being taught clear and careful biblical doctrine—are largely being called to focus their spiritual energies on the Christ Who alone can bless us with such provisions (cf. Phil. 4:13), and on biblical truths that have the inherent ability to edify one’s faith (cf. Rom. 10:17).
Thus, my personal convictions would allow me as a pastor and Bible teacher to use the term “Advent” much more freely—although still perhaps carefully among the untaught—than I would feel at liberty to do with the term “Lent.”
There is value in utilizing aspects of the church year.
Having been originally raised a confessional Lutheran, numerous elements of the traditional church year are still in my bloodstream, and I must admit that I find many of them to be meaningful and helpful.
Take Advent and Christmas, for example. If it were not for these annual celebrations, how often would we teach through important sections of Scripture such as Matthew 1 and 2, or Luke 1 and 2? Perhaps once in a pastorate—or less. How often would we get around to discussing the humanity, hypostatic union or humiliation of Christ, drawing on ancient lessons learned from the Council of Nicea?11 How often would we look back at important prophetic descriptions of the coming Messiah?
While there is no biblical command to celebrate the birth of Christ—or to spend time preparing for that remembrance as if living in the days that preceded the event—there is clearly benefit to doing so.
3 These listings of verses are very general. My purpose here is not to deal specifically with the dispensational and prophetic distinctions and implications of all of these passages.
7 Arguably, our modern celebration of Christmas (in its best sense—not in terms of its cultural excesses) has more to do with the legacy of Charles Dickens than with either Scripture or the liturgical church calendar: Charles Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas?