Advent Week 1: Why Bother with Advent?

cameronKirk Cameron, who has previously been referred to in this space as the Lane Kiffin of evangelicalism, is at it again.  He has a well-established reputation as evangelicalism’s go-to guy anytime a cheesy and horrible Christian movie needs making.  His latest offering, entitled “Saving Christmas”, is out in theaters now.  When a family Christmas party is ruined by a nonbeliever’s comments, Cameron steps in to save the day by explaining the true meaning of Christmas.

Of course the movie tanked on Rotten Tomatoes, with a lowly 8% critical approval rating.  Cameron tried to game the Rotten Tomatoes system by issuing an appeal via his Facebook page for all his followers to “storm the gates of Rotten Tomatoes” by giving the movie positive ratings.  At one point, the “Audience Score” (a separate metric from the approval rating) reached as high as 94% but quickly dropped back down to around 33% where it sits presently.  Cameron, as expected, blamed this on the “haters and atheists”.  (Next time Kirk, try making movies that are actually worth a shit.)

But for the next four weeks, we will leave behind the crazy antics of Kirk Cameron and everyone else out there who is going on about the “War On Christmas”, and move to a completely different universe.

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas.  More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.

advent1Advent is a season of darkness.  Not the special darkness of Lent, which results from the shadow of the Cross falling squarely across our path, but a more general, pervasive darkness, the darkness of a world in waiting for the coming of its long-promised Savior and Redeemer.  During this season, liturgical churches change the color and the decor and do some things differently.

Now I presume that many of you grew up in an evangelical context, which means that, except for the occasional Sunday school teacher going off about the liturgy being “too Catholic” or something to that effect, you probably have no clue about Advent or anything else having anything to do with the liturgy.  (Those of you who do come from liturgical backgrounds, please be patient with me while I attempt to bring the rest of us up to speed.)  So you are probably thinking:  Why bother with Advent at all?  Why go to all the trouble to have a special season for four weeks prior to Christmas?

Allow me to answer this question by way of example.

The calendar we follow regularly shapes our lives and forms us on a deep level.  Those of you who are college football fans can attest to this.  In August there is training camp along with all the buildup to the start of the season.  The season starts on Labor Day weekend; there are a few games of interest but for most teams, opening weekend means going up against a cupcake opponent as a tune-up for the more difficult portion of the schedule to come.  By October, most teams are getting into the meat of their conference schedules.  Division races are heating up, and the true contenders are beginning to emerge.  By November, it is put-up-or-shut-up time as the conference and national title contenders narrow down to just a few.  The weekend after Thanksgiving is the last weekend of the regular season, with the big-time in-state rivalries and grudge matches.  Then it’s the conference championships, followed by the bowl games, and then the playoff which makes its first appearance this year.

In January, as the season winds down, recruiting season kicks into high gear leading right up to February 5 which is National Signing Day.  Then it’s spring camp through March and into April, with most teams having their spring games late March or early April.  During this time the hype, anticipation, and speculation about the coming season begin to build.  This buildup intensifies through the quiet of the summer months until training camp starts back in August, right up to the start of the next season on Labor Day weekend.  And then you get to do it all again next year.  And the year after that.  And the year after that.  And so on.

As you repeat this pattern over and over again, year after year, you find that it begins to shape how you perceive time.  The long haul through the regular season, with one agonizing, heart-throbbing game after another, week after week.  Then the postseason.  Then the madness of recruiting season.  Then the quiet of the spring and summer months, with the hype and buildup to the coming season.  The key conference matches of October.  The rivalry games of November.  The bowl games.  National Signing Day.  The spring games.  These all serve to mark the passage of time in the life of a college football fan.

If this is true in the life of a college football fan, then all the more reason for the Christian believer to employ the same principles in spiritual formation.  And what better way to do this than through the time-tested pattern found in the church year calendar.  Each year begins with Advent and Christmas, where we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  This is followed by the season of Epiphany, where we celebrate Christ’s life and ministry on earth.  Then Lent and Easter, where we celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection.  Then Ascension and Pentecost, where we celebrate Christ’s ascent into heaven and the birth of the Church.  Then Ordinary Time, where we get to live out the life of the Gospel and all that Christ’s death and resurrection means to the world, until Advent comes around and we get to do it all over again.

If we are formed as people by the calendar we keep, then the church year calendar as described above is sheer genius.  It takes us through the life and experiences of Christ, from his birth all the way to his death, resurrection, and beyond, year after year, on an endlessly repeating cycle.  It is simple enough for a child to latch on to, yet offers abundant opportunities for creativity and flexibility.  Those of you who come from liturgical traditions can attest to this, as your experience of the church year calendar may vary significantly from what I have described above, and even from what other liturgical Christians do with the church year.

Allow me to close with a quote from Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year.  This is one of the leading books on the church year and its importance in our lives as Christians.  Webber sums up the essence of the subject as follows:

Ancient-Future Time presents the historical understanding of the Christian year as life lived in the pattern of death and resurrection with Christ. This spiritual tradition was developed in the early church and has been passed down in history through the worship of the church. It enjoys biblical sanction, historical staying power, and contemporary relevance. Through Christian-year spirituality we are enabled to experience the biblical mandate of conforming to Christ. The Christian year orders our formation with Christ incarnate in his ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and coming again through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. In Christian-year spirituality we are spiritually formed by recalling and entering into his great saving events.