Should We Observe Advent?

Woman and child with candles.

This is the first week of Advent, according to some Christian traditions. It is the season of beginnings as far as the church calendar goes. The church year starts here with its rolling cycle of readings, days, fasts and feasts. Most of us approach the church calendar the same way we do our cable service. We sample a little here and there but rarely utilize the whole package. We dabble a little in fasting during lent, mixing it with an occasional foot washing service. Then we break our fast on Easter with ham and candy. Perhaps a handful of us will tip our hat to the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday and pretty much everyone makes a big fuss at Christmas. But beyond this, we don’t pay much attention to the church calendar during the rest of the year.

I am not criticizing. How could I, without condemning myself? And does not the apostle say that we mustn’t let anyone judge us because of our non-observance of religious festivals (Col.2:16)? The New Testament church does not seem to have observed advent or even Christmas. As far as Scripture is concerned, observance is not required.

I do wonder, though, what we are missing with this kind of selective attention. I suspect that by approaching these days and times the way we might a buffet, picking out one or two which appeal to us and ignoring the rest, we lose the theological framework which surround the few that we do observe. There is an intentional rhythm in the church’s calendar that is both narrative and theological. Selective observance interrupts the storyline and wrests these practices from their theological intent. The result is either a one-sided emphasis or a calendar which only dresses up pagan values in Sunday clothes and takes them to church.

Of course, some would argue that the traditional church calendar already does this. They claim that Christmas is just the Roman feast of Saturnalia repurposed for the church’s use.  They might also argue that even those who do come from traditions which mark the church calendar don’t understand the theological context of its observances any better than those who pick and choose their practices or those who ignore them altogether.

There may be some validity to both criticisms. As a holiday (not a holy day), Christmas has always had a tremendous power to assimilate other non-Christian traditions. Our popular observance is more of an amalgamation of customs with roots that stretch far beyond the Christian story, and some which do indeed find their origin in paganism. According to C. S. Lewis, three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious holiday. Another is a popular holiday which has complex historical connections to the religious holiday but is primarily an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. The third is only an occasion for making money or as Lewis puts it a “commercial racket.”

As far as the second criticism goes, that those who observe the church calendar do so without consciously considering its theological meaning, I think Lewis might say that the calendar works best when we do not think about it. He makes this very point when writing about liturgy in general. “Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore” Lewis explains. “And it enables us to do these things best–if you like, ‘works’ best–when, through long familiarity, we do not have to think about it.”  

However, somewhere along the way, somebody has to explain the significance of what we are doing. Otherwise, our practice not only becomes rote but ends up being detached from the very meaning that set it in motion in the first place. It is like the church I once visited that always kept a red light burning above the altar during the service but could not remember why they felt it was important to do so. The meaning isn’t just off the radar for the participant, it no longer exists. Not only is the church’s observance both mechanical and empty, other less worthy meanings can be attached to the practice.

Should the church observe Advent? I think Paul’s directive in Colossians 2:16 demands that we leave it to the individual’s conscience. Yet whatever we do, we must do with understanding, if the aim is to honor Christ and benefit the church. The fact that some practice is ancient or lovely and will add spice to the holiday season or the worship service is not good enough. Our observance must connect us to the story of our redemption. It must point us to the foundational truths that we believe. It must, as Lewis observes, provide us with an opportunity to receive, repent, supplicate, or adore.

Antiphony: The Song of Zechariah and Elizabeth

Zechariah was an old man when the angel appeared to him. His priestly career was mostly behind him as was the hope of fatherhood. In fact, Zechariah was long past hoping. He was trying to understand the reasons why. He and his wife Elizabeth had tried to have children for many years. They had prayed too.  Of course, they had prayed. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth a descendant of Aaron! They had been faithful to God for many years. Yet in all that time God had withheld this small blessing from them.

By now you would think that this ambition would have burned low, along with the desire that accompanies it. Yet when the day came for Zechariah to enter the holy place to pray and offer incense, it occupied his mind. After all those years of faithful service, had it really been so much to ask? Others had been granted this blessing, some many times over. Family members, friends, and some who seemed far less devoted to God than Zechariah and Elizabeth had been allowed to become parents. Time and again he and Elizabeth had been called to celebrate the birth of someone else’s child. Elizabeth wept secret tears over the pitying looks she received from the other women. Zechariah tried to comfort her in his clumsy way and urged her not to give up. Now it was too late. They both knew it. Elizabeth was barren. He was old. They were both too far gone in years to hope for children any longer.

Was the old priest brooding? Perhaps, a little. But it was short lived. He was interrupted with a start when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a figure in the shadows standing next to the altar of incense. The flickering light from the seven branches of the lampstand made the man seem to dance. Zechariah gasped involuntarily and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His first thought was that there has been some confusion. Perhaps another priest had mistakenly thought that the lot had fallen to him to perform this duty. Maybe the error been Zechariah’s. 

Zechariah realized that the figure standing by the altar was gazing intently at him. The priest was about to demand an explanation when the stranger spoke. His tone was reassuring and his face bore the hint of a smile. “Don’t be afraid Zechariah, he said. “Your prayer has been heard.”

“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.”

Zechariah recognized these rules. They were the laws associated with a Nazarite Vow. If the stranger was speaking the truth, not only would he and Elizabeth have a son, but their son would be devoted to the Lord from birth. He would be like Samson or Samuel.

“He will bring many of the people of Israel back to the Lord their God”the stranger went on. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

A thrill of happiness swept over Zechariah, like a wave that breaks upon the shore. It dissipated just as quickly. This was too good to be true. Perhaps someone was playing a practical joke. But it couldn’t be. No priest or Israelite would dare to trespass here. It was too dangerous. He had heard stories of this kind of thing all his life. Visitations by strangers with promises that came from God. It was the sort of thing that happened to people like Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah. But that was in the old stories. He could not imagine such a thing ever happening to him. 

At last Zechariah found the courage to speak. “How can I be sure of this?” he demanded. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” There was a note of helplessness in his voice. As if Zechariah was afraid to believe what he heard. He and his Elizabeth had prayed so hard and had waited so long. He did not think they could bear to be disappointed again.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Zechariah regretted them. He saw the speaker’s expression change in the lamplight. His eyebrows rose in surprise and the timbre of his voice changed from reassurance to indignation. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news” he declared. The angel had not actually raised his voice. Yet his words struck Zechariah like the blast of a trumpet. If terror had not kept him frozen in place, he would have fallen on his face and covered his ears.

“Now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time!” the angel declared.

And then suddenly he was gone. The light seemed to flicker the way a candle does when it gutters. Or the way the sparks rise when incense touches the coals on the altar. There was a hint of fragrance in the air. Not the usual smell of incense but something else. A fragrance that Zechariah could not identify. It made him dizzy. The old priest stood there for several minutes breathing heavily. The ancient silence of the place gathered around him and he tried to collect his thoughts. At last, he made his way out of the Holy Place, stumbling like a blind man.

Meanwhile outside in the temple court, there was a growing sound like waves that have been troubled by the wind when a storm is rising. It was the sound of murmuring coming from those who waited for Zechariah to finish his duties. They were nervous. This delay was not a good sign. Some wondered whether Zechariah had died. Perhaps he had collapsed from old age or maybe he had been smitten by God. After all, such things had happened before. Hadn’t Aaron’s own sons had been struck down when they offered strange fire before the Lord? The waiting multitude cried out in relief when Zechariah finally came into view. But something had happened. That much was clear from the expression on his face. They began to pepper him with questions.

Zechariah raised his arms like someone pronouncing a benediction in a vain attempt to ward off the crowd that swarmed around him. By now he was fully possessed by the joy of what the angel had said. He grinned like a fool. He reeled like a drunken man. He opened his mouth to shout the good news but of course, he could not utter a word. Zechariah began to heave with silent laughter, as tears streamed down his face. He gesticulated wildly with his hands in an attempt to communicate by signs. “He has had some kind of vision,” someone said at last. And Zechariah nodded emphatically.

Zechariah finished out the course of his service and returned home to his wife Elizabeth. The two of them began to count the days until the promised child’s birth. “The Lord has done this for me,” Elizabeth said to those who expressed their amazement. “He looked on me to remove my shame.”

In this way, it came to pass that Zechariah and Elizabeth were drawn into the ancient stories they had known all their lives and so became a tale themselves. Like the answering line of some advent carol, their joys and sorrows were joined to those who had come before. Just as their promised child would set the stage for everything that would come afterward. When Elizabeth’s time was complete, she gave birth to a son. Zechariah wept. Elizabeth laughed. They named him John, just as the angel had predicted. And this was only the beginning of signs.

Once Upon a Time

Picture of The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Last Christmas Eve I attended church. It was the sort of church one often sees these days: chairs where there used to be pews, a worship band instead of a choir, skinny jeans rather than vestments, and exposed ductwork in the place of vaulted ceilings and stained glass. In other words, it was your garden-variety contemporary congregation.

Just before the message, the pastor invited all the children to come on stage and listen to someone read from a picture book about a mouse who discovers the true meaning of Christmas. I’m afraid that I can’t recall the details about the storyline. Only that it was unmemorable. Indeed, if there was anything at all remarkable about the tale, it was the church’s assumption that the Bible’s own account of Christ’s nativity did not possess enough wonder to capture a child’s imagination. I find this hard to understand.

C. S. Lewis described the incarnation as “a myth which is also a fact.” By this he did not mean that the events were non-historical but that the historical facts of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection reflect the great themes of myth and poetry. Lewis calls this a marriage of heaven and earth: “. . . claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”

It is a tragic twist of irony, not to mention a monumental folly, that the church has lost confidence in the power of its own story. Perhaps the reason is that we have convinced ourselves that the old story is too familiar. Like those who turn on the television only to find a rerun, we fear that it will not hold our attention. We think we need a new story. What we fail to recognize is that it is precisely the familiarity of this ancient storyline that makes it so captivating. The tale of a god who comes to earth disguised in human form is one of the oldest storylines in history. It speaks to the ancient heart of the human race. The particular wonder of the Christian story is that it is no disguise. This God actually becomes flesh and dwells among us. It is also no myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”

What we need is not a new story but renewed confidence in the old story that has been entrusted to us. To use the Bible’s language, what we need is faith. We live in a world that is starved for wonder. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the other stories which occupy our imagination. They are tales of super-beings and superpowers, angels and demons. They depict a world where the dead come back to life and evil is vanquished. Yet it is a world where God, if he exists at all, is conspicuously absent. That is to say, we are immersed in stories which not only reflect our dreams but also our disease.

It is time we put the picture books away and returned instead to the story that begins: “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph….”

Bethlehem Night

What makes this night

different from all others?

Our faces lit before the fire,

we repeat the old stories

and count the constellations.

Or we sit

in the habit of silence

like someone long married.

Until the angel appears

with its stab of glory

and we are sore afraid.

We hear his shouted greeting

at once so jocular and familiar

and yet so strange and unearthly.

We hear too

the beating of many wings

like the sound of many waters

and the bleating of the frightened sheep

who scatter in alarm.

But we cannot

comfort them

because we are struck

dumb with wonder.

How Silently, How Silently

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, I feel that I can listen to Christmas Carols in good conscience. Though to be honest, I actually started somewhere around Halloween. Yesterday I was reflecting on the line from O Little Town of Bethlehem which goes: “How Silently, How Silently the wondrous gift is given….” In this lyric Philips Brooks is comparing the stillness of Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth to the silent miracle of salvation.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;

so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,

where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

But Brooks’s lyric is also a reminder to me of how often silence is a feature of our experience with God. We know that God can speak. The Bible tells us that He spoke creation into existence. We read the Bible and regard it as His word. Yet for many–I would say most– of us it feels that God responds to us in silence. This is one of the things that tends to make prayer so hard. We feel as if we are engaged in a one sided conversation. We don’t know what to make of God’s silence and so misinterpret it, just as we might the silence of a friend or lover. We think that God’s silence is proof of His absence or we take it as a sign of disinterest. It is easy to see why.  We have been taught to think that people who care speak up. Those who don’t speak don’t care.

That’s also why so much of the communication we hear these days seems to come in the form of a shriek. Whether it is an audible shout or an emoji filled, all caps, bold face post on social media, outrage has become our culture’s primary Love Language. So we naturally think that if God does not respond in some emphatic way to our pleas it must mean that He doesn’t care about us.

We equate God’s silence with disengagement. In Psalm 28:1 David says, “To you I call, O LORD my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit.” Notice the connection between silence and deafness. This is our fear when it comes to God’s silence. We worry that it means that God can’t hear us or even worse that He won’t hear us. One of the ironies of this is that in the Bible we find that God’s speech can be more difficult to bear than His silence. According to Exodus 20:19 when the Israel heard God declare the Law from Mount Sinai, they begged Moses to act as His go-between: “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19). God’s silence is sometimes a sign of judgment. But it may also be a mercy.

Silence doesn’t necessarily mean disinterest. It is also a mark of attention. Those who listen are silent. Silence is also emphatic. Silence often acts as God’s exclamation point, forcing us to focus on the situation at hand. Instead of speaking to us in words, God communicates through our circumstances. Silence is a feature of stillness and stillness is a characteristic of those who wait. “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” Psalm 37:7 urges, “do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” Those who are still are waiting for God to act.

Such a strategy seems counter-intuitive in this age of activism. I mean we can’t do nothing can we? Surely we should do something! Of course the answer is that when we are still, we are doing something. We are waiting. We are expecting. We are trusting. Stillness is the atmosphere of Bethlehem, as God draws near in silence and relative obscurity. When the time had fully come, God sent His Son (Gal. 4:4). When our time is fully come God will act on our behalf. In the meantime, the best thing we can do may be to be still and wait.