Today I would like to direct your attention to this post by Joseph Bottum over at First Things. In this post, Bottum contends that much which is wrong with the celebration of Christmas, both in our churches and in the culture at large, is a result of evangelical Protestant-dom’s deemphasis of the Advent season.
Those of you who did not grow up in a liturgical tradition are probably shaking your heads and wondering, “What on earth is Advent and why on earth are we talking about it?” For your benefit, let me give you a brief Advent primer.
Advent is the season before Christmas. It starts on either the first Sunday of December or the last Sunday of November, and lasts for four weeks–three full weeks plus whatever is necessary to take us through to Christmas. There are always four Sundays in Advent–never more, never less.
Advent is a season of waiting. It is a season in which we await the fulfillment of God’s promises to us by sending Christ to be born in our world, which we celebrate on Christmas–and at the same time await the complete fulfillment of God’s promises to us which will take place when Christ returns again at the end of the present age.
Advent is also a season of darkness. Not the darkness of Lent (the season before Easter) which is the direct result of the Cross looming large before us and casting its shadow directly across our path. The darkness of Advent is just straight-up darkness–the darkness of the formless world before God spoke into it and said “Let there be light”, the darkness of a world thoroughly corrupted by sin which awaits the fulfillment of God’s promise to send His Son into it.
The underlying premise of Advent is that we need a Savior. That’s right, people. I said “we”, and I meant it. As evangelicals, we love to parade before the whole world the message that we have the Savior and they’re the ones who need Him. That is wrong. We all need a Savior–those of us who are inside the Church just as much as those who are on the outside.
We need a Savior to deliver us from the abysmal failure of religion to produce any transformation inside of us. Strip away a couple of layers of religion and we who claim to be “saved” appear to be just as lost as the world which, we claim, needs to be “saved”.
We need a Savior to deliver us from our headlong rush into captivity at the hands of Western culture. From our tendency to prioritize things in the way the world does–that more, bigger, faster, busier, etc. is better. From our churches which represent all that we admire in American culture but offer barely a shred of the community that Jesus would want to see in His church. From our pursuit of more lights, more gifts, bigger gifts, more expensive gifts, more shopping, more parties, more trees and ribbons and music in the stores–as if all these things are what Christmas is really all about. (Don’t get me wrong here. I love the lights, the music, the parties, the decorations, etc. that go along with Christmas. But these things are NOT the essence of Christmas.)
Advent is the time in which we acknowledge that we all need a Savior, and we wait–both for the Savior whose birth we will celebrate in a couple of weeks, and for the Savior who will come again at the end of the age and put all things right for good. This is not a time for the “saved” to tell the “lost” to “Get saved!!!!!” This is a time for all people, whether “saved” or “lost”, to come together to await the birth of the Savior whom we all so desperately need–and when He comes, to recognize Him–together.
Those of you who are interested in finding some ideas on how to observe Advent, this post by Michael Spencer is a good place to start.