When Jesus was born, the heavens broke wide open and an army of angels sang
"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"
In announcing Jesus’ birth, the angels said
they were bringing "good news of a great joy that will be for all the people." Since the fourth century, the church has used the season of Advent as a time to celebrate that "good news of great joy."
What is Advent?
The celebration of Advent (which means "coming" or "arrival") helps us focus our attention on Jesus Christ’s birth and ministry as well as his promised return. It starts the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. Celebrating Advent helps us cut through all the distractions of the Christmas season and focus our attention on Jesus Christ’s birth and ministry as well as his promised return. Since we can’t anticipate the day or the hour of Christ’s return, we are filled with both a sense of joyful expectation and humble reverence, with our spiritual focus being on lives of prayer and preparation. Throughout the season we are constantly reminded that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah and Savior of the World.
Why recognize Advent?
The Scriptures don’t require us to do anything different during the Advent season. Recognizing Advent as individuals, families, or as a church doesn’t make you better or more spiritual than a church that doesn’t recognize Advent. That said, there are some real advantages for a church to recognize and celebrate the Advent season.
1. It’s expected.
Individuals in your community expect the church to at least recognize something is different during the month of December. Traditions (individual and cultural) form people to observe this holiday season. Observing Advent can be one of the more subversive acts that a congregation can do. Because our culture still observes the Christmas season, there are a lot of natural connection points between the church and culture during the holiday season. How a church embodies its participation in the time and events of Advent can communicate a lot to the community around them about the importance of the story of Jesus.
2. It tells the story of Jesus.
During Christmas time, Christians get a bunch of press as they fight over which words and religious symbols the culture must use to recognize the coming of the Prince of Peace. They put on elaborate pageants and concerts to celebrate the king who was born into poverty, in an obscure town, to a couple of young, first-time parents. The story of Jesus can get lost in the celebration. During Christmas time, those who have little to do with the church gather with family, host elaborate parties, decorate their houses, and give money and presents away. Again, the story of Jesus can get lost in the celebration. When you celebrate Advent through songs, Scripture readings, sermons, and the Lord’s Supper, you get to tell God’s great story of redemption. You can tell of the need for redemption highlighted throughout the entire Old Testament. You can tell of the coming of Jesus, "born a child and yet a king." You can tell of how the angels proclaimed and the Magi demonstrated the global implications of Jesus’ birth. You can tell of how his now longed-for second coming will be horror for those who don’t believe and wonder upon wonder for those who do believe. Advent gives your church a wonderful opportunity to tell the story of redemption from all the Scriptures.
3. It tells the whole story.
Advent is about much more than gifts and good deeds. The story isn’t all fun and wonder. There is darkness and gloom. There is longing. There is joy and light. There is redemption and grace. There is judgment and final victory. In a way, recognizing Advent is expected. In another way, it’s counter-cultural. Advent allows you to both show the horror of sin and the blessings Christ came to make known, "far as the curse is found." When you recognize the season of Advent over a number of services before Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, you get to talk about these things. You help your people understand why the inbreaking of God’s kingdom through the birth of Jesus is "good news of a great joy that will be for all people" (Luke 2:10). For example, during Advent you can talk about how to observe the humility of Christ’s birth amidst the gaudy overindulgence of our consumer-frenzied Christmas. You can talk about how crying out, "Come, thou long-expected Jesus" counters our demands for our best life now. You can encourage your people to a global mission as you talk about pagan astrologers who followed a star to worship the one born king of the Jews. These are a few reasons to recognize Advent. In the next post, we will offer some ways your church can observe the season in a way that participates in the narrative birth of Jesus and fits your context.
Up next: How to Celebrate Advent Together
Elliot Grudem is the network coordinator for Acts 29. This post, to which Bruce Benedict also contributed, originally appeared on The Resurgence.