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.

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….”

The Myth That Became Reality

nativity

Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small village. She was poor but virtuous. One day, shortly before her marriage was to take place, she was startled by an unexpected visitor. “Do not be afraid,” the visitor said. “I have good news for you. You are going to have a child. He will be a great king.”

Sound familiar? This could be the beginning of any number of stories. But it is the beginning of one particular story. None of the Gospels opens by saying, “Once upon a time….” Yet when we read them, we get the feeling that they might have. The mysteries and wonders they describe are the sort one reads about in fairy tales. A peasant girl gives birth to a miraculous child. A star appears in the heavens and announces his birth. Magi travel from a distant land to pay homage to him. The hero descends to the realm of the dead and returns.

This is the stuff of myth and fantasy, except the Bible does not call it by either of those names. The Bible does not even call it a story. Not really. According to the Scriptures it is truth. It is “good news.” The Gospels do not spin tales, they bear witness. Yet the Gospels’ embodied and historical nature does not negate the mythical quality of the real events they describe.

In an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” C. S. Lewis described myth as “the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to.” Myth in this sense not a fanciful story although, as Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism, myth always deals with the fantastic. It is an account which connects our experience with a realm of truth that would otherwise be out of our reach.

But the historical events the Gospel’s describe go beyond 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.” In the fantastic but true account of Christ’s birth we meet the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Although He is “not far from each one of us,” without the Gospel record of these events He would be forever beyond our reach. No wonder the ancient church sang:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Thanks be to God.

Between Heaven and Hell

Hell is not the only doctrine that has fallen out of favor in our day. Heaven has fallen on hard times as well. We used to sing, “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace.” But these days Evangelicals are more likely to speak of the kingdom than of heaven. Justice is more important to them than the hope of heaven.

To many the notion that heaven might be an actual place seems about as awkward as the thought of a literal Hell. N. T. Wright seems typical of this thinking when he asks what the ultimate Christian hope is and what hope there is for change, rescue, transformation and new possibilities within the world in the present. “As long as we see Christian hope in terms of going to heaven,” Wright claims, “of a salvation that is essentially away from this world the two questions are bound to appear unrelated.” No, Christians today don’t want to go to heaven. We want our heaven on earth and we want it now.

It seems to me that these two things are linked. The church’s neglect of the doctrine of hell springs from the same root that has prompted us to marginalize the hope of heaven. It is a result of being worldly-minded. This is a major cause of all our disappointment with God. We are disappointed because we are primarily interested in the comforts of earthly life and troubled by earthly sorrows. We have forgotten Jesus’ warning that there are other worse sorrows yet to come as well as better joys that cannot be described in earthly terms.

The often quoted observation of C. S. Lewis was right. We are too easily satisfied: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

Our distaste for the old doctrine of hell reflects a similar lack of vision. We clamor for justice but what we really want is a kind of spiritual egalitarianism. We want a heavenly bureaucracy which makes sure that everyone is serviced. We do not really want justice. How could we? If a blameless and upright man like Job, someone who feared God and shunned evil, withered under the faintest breath of God’s justice, what makes us think that we could survive its full blast?

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.