I confess: as an adolescent, when my parents tried to impress on my two brothers and me the importance and the intricacies of Advent observance, I could hardly keep from rolling my eyes. In a country that spends its cold Decembers in hot pursuit of food, presents, and parties, the historical niceties of an ancient liturgical season seemed … well … irrelevant.
These days, on the other side of an evangelical conversion and nearly a decade of graduate study in church history, I've begun to see what excited my parents about Advent. I'm even entertaining the possibility that my own young family might benefit from an informed observance of Advent.
(How to help my kids keep their eyes reverently lowered and their hearts in tune during such observance is, I confess, still pretty much beyond me. But that's a discussion for another day. I'm sure my parents are chuckling as they read this!)
In fact, Advent season presents a unique opportunity to many Protestants. It's like the once-a-year conjunction of two planets: It brings a great mass of Bible-loving, praise-and-worshipping, extemporaneously praying born-again Protestant Christians into close contact with a big chunk of the historic church's liturgy. Even many non-liturgical Protestants don't think twice about joining in the season's rituals, old as well as new. They pull out and count off advent calendars, listen to lectionary sermon themes and Bible readings, and recite set prayers at the dinner table around candles in meaningful hues of purple and rose.
So as Advent's four bright Sundays offer us ways to meditate on Christ's coming, let's explore the sustaining power of liturgical observance. In the words of John Bookser Feister, editor of AmericanCatholic.com, churchly seasons like Advent "tie our lives to Christians throughout history." In a time of year filled with indulgence, the observance of centuries-old Christian practices can feed us in a deeper and better way.
What is this thing called Advent?
Once upon a time, in 4th- and 5th-century Gaul and Spain, "Advent" was a preparation not for Christmas but for Epiphany. Epipha-what? That's the early-January celebration of such diverse events in Jesus's life as his Baptism, the miracle at Cana, and the visit of the Magi. In those days, Epiphany was set aside as an opportunity for new Christians to be baptized and welcomed into the church. So believers spent Advent's forty days examining their hearts and doing penance.
It was not until the 6th century that Christians in Rome began linking this season explicitly to the coming of Christ. But at that time, and for centuries after, the "coming" that was celebrated was 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 celebrate Christ's birth. And even then, this newer sense of the Lord's "advent" or coming did not supplant the older sense—the Second Coming. And the muted, Lent-like mood of penitential preparation remained alongside the joyous anticipation of Jesus' birthday.
So, the modern liturgy divides Advent into a period, through December 16th, during which the focus is Christ's Second Coming, and a period, from December 17th to the 24th, 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 trumpeting John the Baptist's exhortations and the angels' announcements.
Every year these rich Scriptural reminders and the traditional prayers that accompany them set my blood rushing a little faster and bring a rising excitement: Christ came with plenty of prior notice! Prophets and angels joined to proclaim his coming! And now I can join too, with the cloud of witnesses stretching back to apostolic times, in the same proclamation!
And in the protected, quiet times of meditation, I can respond as I imagine believers have done on every Advent since the tradition began:
I can bow my head and prepare my heart to receive the One who is always present, but who seems distant in the busyness of the season.
I can mourn for my hardness of heart.
I can hope in his grace.
And I can rejoice that in answer to the cry, "O come, O come, Emmanuel," he came.
Would I really be able to do this—in the midst of December's commercial rush of lights, decorations, present-buying, and piped-in carols—without a gently insistent, weekly liturgical pattern?
But I'm not rolling my eyes any more.
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For more on the history, meaning, patterns, and traditions of the Advent season, see Gary D. Penkala's "Advent Then and Now" and other advent-related articles on the CanticaNOVA website.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
Dig that Billy Graham Cat! | How the grand old man of evangelism helped create Christian youth culture in the zoot-suit era. (Nov. 22, 2002)
From Swamped Creatures to Separated Brethren | Non-Catholics' spiritual status improved dramatically from Unam Sanctam to Vatican II, but where are we now? (Nov. 15, 2002)
An 'Ordinary Saint' in Wartime | William Wilberforce saw two long charitable campaigns through, even in war's distracting shadow. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Just War, Just Nation? | World War II preacher points America back to the nation's soul. (Nov. 1, 2002)
No Sex (Before Marriage), Please … We're Christian | Miss America preaches a 2000-year-old message. (Oct. 25, 2002)
The King Is Coming, Eventually | What if you announced the rapture, but God didn't show up? (Oct. 18, 2002)
Timeline of the Spirit-Gifted | Before Moody, Finney, Edwards, and Mather came a long line of Catholic and Orthodox believers reputed to enjoy "the promise of the Father." (Oct. 11, 2002)
Do Non-Charismatics 'Do' Holy Spirit Baptism? | Ask D. L. Moody, Charles G. Finney, Jonathan Edwards, or Cotton Mather. (Oct. 4, 2002)
Standing Alone for Unity | The attempt to bring European Christians together forced one reformer, Caspar Schwenckfeld, straight to the fringe. (Sept. 20, 2002)
9/11, History, and the True Story | Wartime authors J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis help put 9/11 in perspective. (Sept. 13, 2002)
Evangelicalism's Decades of Fire | New historical survey highlights twentieth-century evangelicalism's impassioned middle decades. (Sept. 6, 2002)
A Protestant Bishop Speaks Out on the Stakes of Public Education | Why concerned parents should read the 17th-century Moravian educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius. (Aug. 30, 2002)
Spurgeon on Jabez | What history's most prolific preacher said, in 1871, about the Prayer of Jabez (Aug. 23, 2002)
History in a Flash | A new CD-ROM offers quick access to the facts of church history, plus interactive quizzes. (Aug. 16, 2002)
How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife (Aug. 9, 2002)
Divvying up the Most Sacred Place | Emotions have historically run high as Christians have staked their claims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Aug. 2, 2002)
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineWhen Politics Saved 25 Million LivesTwenty years ago, Republicans, Democrats, evangelicals, gay activists, and African leaders joined forces to combat AIDS. Will their legacy survive today’s partisanship?
- RelatedWaiting for Jesus: Lessons from Simeon and AnnaAdvent's elderly heroes waited decades for consolation. Here's what they can teach us.español
- Editor's PickA Tale of Two New York City PastorsOne formed me. The other entertained me.