Advent is inevitably one of those times when questions and even confusion arise in a congregation. If a church is acknowledging Advent in any form, it may be worth considering some of these questions as a help to understanding why we do what we do (and why we DON'T do certain things) during this season.
What Is "Advent?"
"Advent" is a derivative of a latin word that means "coming" or "arrival" — and in the context of the church, it means a focus on the coming of Jesus as Messiah. There is a dual nature to this sort of focus: we focus on the coming of Jesus as the incarnate God who was born to a virgin over 2000 years ago; we also focus on the coming of Jesus who has promised to return forever to reign, and to bring redemption to the whole of creation.
How Is Advent Related To Christmas?
Advent is the preparation time for Christmas. During Advent, Christians have considered our need, both corporately and individually, for the redemption that comes through Christ — both for our own salvation and for the redeeming of all of creation. When we consider this need, it is natural and proper for it to stir a sense of longing in us; this is good for us spiritually, and should be a part of our expression throughout Advent. This is why the themes of Advent are those of waiting and anticipation: with the apostle John, we cry out, "Maranatha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus."
Why Can't We Just Focus On The Christmas Season?
We can — and we will! But in the Christian calendar, the Christmas season doesn't end on December 25; it begins then; the season of Christmastide lasts until January 5 — 12 days of Christmas (sound familiar?). Advent comes before Christmas for a reason: as one writer commented, "there is no real need for Christmas if there isn't first an Advent." In other words, without a sense of the need for redemption and a longing for Messiah, there isn't much purpose in celebrating the incarnation of God in Christ!
Our culture, eager to ignore the helplessness and need that Advent demands, would rather turn Christmas into a consumer holiday that is all about shopping and decorations. This is why the world wants to jump ahead to playing Christmas music shortly after Hallowe'en is past! But the decorations and gift-giving have a purpose — the celebration of the generosity of Emmanuel, God with us — and Christians should resist the worldliness that ignores our need for Emmanuel.
What About Christmas Traditions?
The Christian Church is full of traditions (yes, even protestant churches!). Whether a congregation is a few years old or centuries old, traditions in the church will be an important part of heritage and practice. One thing that Christians need to keep in mind — and there is much benefit in frequently reminding ourselves of this — is that we are part of a Church with history, heritage, and tradition that goes back centuries and millennia. Often our sense of tradition is based mainly on what the older members of our congregation can remember, but Christian traditions and practices go back for 2000 years, not just for 50 or 75. And traditionally, the church has acknowledged Advent as the preliminary preparation for Christmas; it has only been in the last century or so that the Church has had so much cultural influence about these practices.
So, When Are We Going To Sing Christmas Carols?
It would seem a little out of place if we were to sing "Christ The Lord Is Risen Today" on the Sunday after Christmas, wouldn't it? That's because we know this is an Easter hymn, but it's not Easter! And the phrase, "risen today" suggests a timing that almost underscores that it is out of place in seasons other than Easter.
Isn't it the same with Christmas carols? When we sing "yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning" (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing) or "Christ was born today" (Good Christian Men, Rejoice) before Christmas day, it should feel a little out of place. Meanwhile, there are good Advent-themed hymns that we will sing in anticipation of Christmas, like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Of The Father's Love Begotten," "Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending," "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," and "Joy To The World!" (yes, that one is an Advent hymn — especially when you include the fourth verse, which all of the radio and department store versions want to leave out!).
Meanwhile, as our anticipation and longing grows throughout Advent, we will start to sing more and more of the carols that are so beloved and associated with the Christmas season. Even then, though, the way that we sing them should perhaps be slightly different: not sung with Christmas morning joy, but with Christmas Eve expectation.
What Can/Should We Do For Advent?
Our congregation celebrates Advent in subtle, but important ways. For one, as I've already mentioned, we are enjoying the hymns and carols appropriate to Advent, as well as beginning to sing with anticipation carols that evoke thoughts of Christmas. We also include a lighting of candles on an Advent Wreath — a tradition that Christians have celebrated for centuries, reminding us of the tension between the hope of anticipation and the patience of waiting. You may have also noticed that Advent themes are present in other elements of our order of worship, including the Call to Worship, the corporate Prayer of Confession, and the Benediction.
Maybe you want to employ some practices in your home that will be an expression of Advent. How can individuals and families do for Advent? Here are a few suggestions:
- Advent Wreaths: you can make or buy the supplies for Advent wreaths and light your own! Many families have a tradition of lighting Advent wreaths together during family devotionals.
- Jesse Tree: another tradition that many families use is the Advent Jesse Tree, which is a daily explanation of how much of the content of the Old Testament points to Christ and His coming.
- Decorations: some families might decide to "delay" putting their decorations for Christmas up until later — maybe even until Christmas Eve! (Remember that part of Dickens' A Christmas Carol when Scrooge visits his nephew's home on Christmas Eve, and they are having a party while decorating the tree?) Also, by the way, you might consider keeping the decorations up through the whole Christmastide season, until January 5.
- Online resources: there are a lot of interesting ideas online for how to celebrate Advent; one of the more interesting ones I've seen is an Advent coloring book, where children can color a different page each day to teach/remind them of the truths of Advent. (I linked to a number of them in a post from a few years ago.)
I hope that you will embrace and celebrate in the season of Advent this year — and that it will enrich your Christmas celebration!