An Advent Primer
What is Advent?
The word “advent” comes from the Latin advenire, ad (“to”) - venire (“come”), or adventus (“arrival”). It is the celebration of the incarnation of Jesus at his birth (i.e. Christmas). Historically, it has been a traditional part of worship leading up to Christmas among Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists (among others), but is also regularly observed among many within evangelicalism.
Advent traditionally begins on the 4th Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. Therefore, it is technically not a part of the historic “Christmas season,” which lasts from Christmas day until January 5th (Epiphany Eve) and is where we get the “12 Days of Christmas” from. However, culturally speaking, as the commercialization of the holidays developed through the 19th and 20th centuries, the Christmas/holiday season in America is typically thought to run from Thanksgiving through New Years (and includes Advent).
SIDE NOTE: Epiphany, for those who don't know, is an ancient church festival celebrating Christ's manifestation to the Gentiles through the visit of the magi (wisemen) to the Christ child. While most Nativity scenes include the magi, most scholars and historians agree that the actual visit from the wisemen occurred many months (even up to almost two years) after Christ was born.
History of Advent
Scholars and historians believe (according to my research) that during the 4th and 5th centuries (particularly in areas in and around Spain), Advent was a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians at the feast of Epiphany. For 40 days, they would spend time in penance, prayer, and fasting. Originally, there was little connection between Advent and Christmas.
By the 6th century, the observance of Advent had become tied to the coming of Christ, however it was not Christmas (his first coming as a baby), but rather his second coming as king and judge which they were celebrating. It was not until the Middle Ages that the Advent season became explicitly linked to Christmas.
What about the Advent wreath, a typical part of many Advent observances? This idea originated in Germany in the 16th century. However, Professor Haemig of Luther Seminary, credits Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–1881), a Protestant pastor in Germany, as the inventor of the modern Advent wreath in the 19th century. Professor Haemig's research also indicates that the custom did not reach the United States until the 1930s.
Advent calendars, another popular Christmas tradition in many families, also seemingly find their origin in Germany. The tradition dates to the mid-19th century, when German Protestants made chalk marks on doors or lit candles to count the days leading up to Christmas. Gerhard Lang is widely considered the producer of the first printed Advent calendar in the early 1900s.
Liturgy of Advent
As mentioned above, one of the most popular and common parts of Advent observances around the world includes the lighting of candles (often set within a wreath). It is usually a horizontal evergreen wreath with four candles, sometimes with a fifth, white candle in the center. The lighting of a candle can be, and often is, accompanied by a Bible reading, devotional time, prayers and/or singing of hymns. The four outer candles are lit on successive Sundays leading up to Christmas, with the final (optional) center candle lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas to symbolize Christ's arrival. The custom can be, and is, observed in both family settings and in corporate worship services.
Advent wreaths are circular, representing God's infinite love, and are usually made of evergreen leaves, which represent the hope of eternal life brought by Jesus Christ. This is also why evergreen wreathes and trees are traditionally such a big part of Christmas decorations. Within the Advent wreath are candles that generally represent the four weeks of the Advent season, as well as the light of God coming into the world through the birth of Jesus. Although, each of the candles also has its own symbolic meaning as well individually. The candles specifically symbolize the Christian concepts of hope (week one), peace (week two), joy (week three), and love (week four) in many traditions. The coloring of these candles varies among denominations and cultures, however in many Protestant churches one candle is rose/pink and the other three are violet/purple. The pink candle is lit third because that color is traditionally linked to “joy.” Many Advent wreaths also have a white candle in the center to symbolize the arrival of Christ (typically known as the "Christ candle"). This candle is colored white to symbolize purity.
Should we celebrate Advent?
When it comes to matters of worship liturgy and tradition, the faithful Christian should always seek to be obedient to the commandments of scripture in our beliefs and practices. In some instances, the Bible gives clear instruction on what we should do and how we should do it. In others, it is less explicit and leaves much open to personal interpretation, conviction, and discernment. When it comes to celebrations such as Advent, there are few who could legitimately argue that there is anything inherently wrong with celebrating the different events of Christ’s life. Furthermore, the Apostle Paul, in teaching on Christian liberty in 1 Corinthians 10 writes, “'All things are lawful,' but not all things are helpful. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” He goes on to conclude that, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” In other words, just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should...or that it is wise to do so. One should continually seek to answer the question, “Do my actions bring glory to God?”
Additionally, Romans 14:4-6 says:
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
Again, we should see here that there is much freedom in Christ, but also much responsibility. A Christian is free to, for example, observe whatever day he wants, as long as he “does so to the Lord.”
That being said, we must be careful to avoid such pitfalls as superstitions and empty rituals (Isaiah 1:13-14) which have crept into the celebratory practices surrounding many holidays in our culture, especially Christmas. In fact, some customs can and do directly conflict with scripture's command that we worship and obey God, and he alone. Whatever holidays we choose to observe, the Lord should always be glorified in them; and the Bible must remain our only rule for faith and practice.
Hope (Week One):
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Scripture is clear that all of our hope is found nowhere but in Jesus Christ. He is the author of our hope through the promises of his Holy Word. He is the perfector or our hope in his incarnation. And he is the fulfillment of our hope by his death upon the cross and his resurrection from the grave. This passage points us to the hope realized (the grace of God) in Christ's first coming, and the hope that is to come (the glory of God) at his second.
What does this passage teach us about the reason for our hope, and how we are to respond to it?
Peace (Week Two):
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
We live in a world marred by chaos. It surrounds us. Long forgotten is the shalom (peace) of the garden where man lived in the presence of his Creator. As the very image-bearers of God, despite the far reaching effects of sin in our hearts and minds, at our very deepest level, we still long for that peace. Our souls can feel that something is wrong with the world around us. We are never at peace because we are separated from our source of peace, and we are living outside of the purpose for which we were created (to glorify God as we love, worship, and enjoy him forever).
Isaiah 9 gives us several titles for Jesus, but the last and perhaps greatest, is “Prince of Peace.” Christ's power isn't merely revealed through his atonement for our sins, but rather it extends well beyond, to his restorative work in making all things new in and through himself. The fruit of Jesus' work will be the complete and total reestablishment of true and perfect peace in Heaven and on Earth.
What are some ways in which we can see/find peace (tangibly) through Jesus, in and among the chaos of daily life?
Joy (Week Three):
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.
One of the key themes in Paul's letter to the Philippians is “joy.” As we read this, and the Apostle's other letters, what should catch our attention is how amazingly (almost supernaturally) iron-clad his joy is, even in the face of intense suffering and/or persecution. This teaches us something immensely important about joy, that is, that joy is not, indeed it cannot be, found in one's circumstances. It must be rooted in something much deeper...something more solid, secure, and less prone to change in the blink of an eye.
So what is it that creates and sustains joy? I am convinced that the answer to that question is Jesus. See, our joy is intimately interconnected with our hope. In other words, having hope gives birth to joy. It brings joy to life and provides all that it needs to survive. At the same time, joy illuminates hope. Therefore, as we live joyfully, we magnify the light of glory which shines upon Jesus as the source of the hope which leads to joy, even when everything else around us seems to be crumbling down to the ground. In Christ, we have everything...he is enough!
How can we be encouraged, and encourage others, in and through Jesus, when facing trials and difficulties?
Love (Week Four):
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Love truly is a many-splendored thing. For love, people will do amazing, crazy, heroic, and even horrible things. We write songs for love, and create masterpieces of art and literature about love. Wars have been fought for love. People kill and die for love. It is perhaps the most intense and mysterious of all human emotions. But for all of our grand talk and gestures about love, our capacity for love and ability to love is severely handicapped by the imperfect and selfish nature of our love.
Sin takes all that is beautiful and disfigures it, sometimes beyond recognition. Despite our best efforts, any expression of love within mankind is merely a cheap imitation of the real thing. If we want to truly see and understand what love is, we can only look to one place...our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Bible tells us that God is love, and in Christ we see clearly what it means to love, and we see just how far love will go. There is no greater love story than the story of Jesus, the sovereign king of the universe, descending from his throne, taking on flesh, and living among and dying to save the same people who rejected him, that we might be reconciled back to him. That is mega awesome love!!!
Think of the person/people you love most in the world. Think about what you would do for them. Now, imagine doing that same thing for someone who unapologetically hates you. How does that change your perspective on what Jesus has done for you?
Please join us starting this Sunday, Decemeber 1st as we begin a sermon series on Advent!