Should Christians observe Advent?


I grew up in a “non-liturgical” denominational church.  I do not recall observing the traditional Advent season at any point.

We certainly had our own set of annual church traditions and our order of service.  Just nothing that looked anything at all like mainline or “high” church.  It was very rural and very congregational.

Right or wrong, somewhere along the line I developed a subtle suspicion of anything that might be “dead” formalism. There’s good reason for being cautious about formalism and tradition. Only God knows how many folks keep traditions and rituals and think that because of them they have a relationship with Christ.  But if you don’t really know why you are doing something, it’s not likely that it springs from or deeply contributes to the real work of God’s Spirit in transforming your life into Christlikeness.

Probably everyone has heard about the multi-generations of ladies in one particular family, who always cut short the shank end of the Christmas ham before placing it in the baking pan. One day a man asked his wife why she cut off the end of the ham before baking it.  And she said, “Well, I don’t know.  That’s how my mother always prepared it.”  So they both asked Grandma.  And she said, “That’s how Maw-maw always did it.”  Finally, dear old Maw-maw was consulted, and she replied matter-of-factly, “Oh, that’s easy. The pan was usually too short for the ham to fully fit in it.”

Certainly that was a Christmas tradition that no longer had any meaningful purpose or value – and thus no need to continue practicing it!

But traditions can be very powerful and important – as long as they retain their valuable meaning and intended purpose!  The best way to gauge a religious tradition’s ongoing merit is to ask this simple question:

Does it still serve the intended purpose of helping people experience and respond to the Word and Spirit of God?

Actually, as our society has become more and more consumeristic and  commercialized, there has probably never been a more urgent need for a tradition like ADVENT.  Otherwise the hustle and bustle, the shopping, the parties and feasting, the Santas and elves…may totally eclipse the reason why we observe this holiday in the first place.

What is Advent?  When and from where did it start?  Literally, it means “appearance” or “coming”.  Interestingly, it was not until the 6th century that Christians in Rome began practicing this season, and at that time, and for centuries after, the “coming” that was celebrated was actually NOT the birth of Jesus, but His Second Coming. It was not until the Middle Ages that the church began using the Advent season to prepare to also celebrate Christ’s birth. And even then, this newer sense of the Lord’s “advent” or coming did not supplant the older sense. The tradition took on both aspects and included a more somber Lent-like mood of penitential preparation alongside a joyous anticipation of Jesus’ birthday.

Most modern observances of Advent involve setting apart the four Sundays before Christmas for special services and liturgies.  Often these four weeks are divided into two periods: the first half which focuses on Christ’s Second Coming, and a second half focusing on His birth. It starts with sobering passages and prayers about the apocalyptic return of the Lord in judgment. Then it moves to Old Testament passages foretelling the birth of a messiah and New Testament passages revealing angelic visitations and glorious announcements.

For those who are informed and sincere in their faith, Advent can be an incredibly Christ-centered and worshipful tradition to observe.


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