The Blessing of Advent

The greens are hung, the first carols sung, and we are now officially in Advent. Some people take this more seriously than others. I personally won’t police the songs we’ll sing in worship over the next few weeks to keep out things properly reserved for Christmas, for example, but I do know of pastors who will do everything in their power to keep a sharp demarcation between Advent and Christmas — and that means no “Joy to the World” until the Lord¬†is come.

On the one hand, a legalistic adherence to the church calendar helps no one. I can’t think of a single instance in which responding to “Merry Christmas!” with “No, it’s only Advent, you can’t say that yet” would be both spiritually beneficial and a decent, kind thing to do. (In fact, I can’t imagine saying that off the cuff without being a jerk.) For starters, not everyone observes the liturgical calendar. Not all sanctuaries just changed their color schemes from green to blue or purple; not everyone lit a candle in the name of hope this past Sunday. In fact, probably most Protestants failed to mark the Christian new year in any observable fashion whatsoever, despite it being a universal Christian thing across all denominational boundaries. And so to obliterate cheer, good will, and general niceties just for the sake of a slavish adherence to traditional liturgical appropriateness is a bad move all the way around.

On the other hand, we could use a lot more Advent in our current day and age. Ours is the era of instant gratification, after all. We don’t like waiting for anything; it seems to physically hurt us to not get what we want the second we want it. And that’s kind of crazy. I wish I knew what destroyed any semblance of patience we may have once had, but something tells me it’s a joint effort of many different things: parents who don’t tell their children no and instead give in to every demand; Netflix giving us things in complete bundles instead of on the “one episode a week” installment plan; television shows and movies that change scenes/angles every 3-6 seconds and keep us from having an attention span; and probably a whole bunch of other things. In the end, it’s still attributable to fallen human nature. Where patience is a fruit of the Spirit, a lack of it is best described as a sin problem.

Advent runs totally counter to that “I want it now!” impulse. It makes us slow down and wait. Yes, Christmas is coming. Yes, Christ will come again. But he wasn’t born this instant; his nativity won’t happen for a few more weeks yet. So no, you can’t open your presents right now. You can’t start decorating the tree before Halloween. You must wait. And wait. And wait. And . . .

. . . rejoice for twelve days straight. Because Christmas really¬†is twelve days, you know. (Come on, people. There’s a song and everything!) Now you gain the object of your eager expectation. Sing all the carols you like, bake a figgy pudding, figure out wassailing. It’s Christmas!

But as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait. Christmas can only come after Advent, just as surely as the virgin birth followed the Annunciation. As we move into Advent, slow down. Wait a bit. Savor the moment. Delay your Christmastide gratification. And bask in the hope of the Advent promise: the King is coming.

The Power of Nativity

People think a lot about power. And for every person, there seems to be a different way to conceive of power. Even Lord Voldemort told us good and evil don’t really exist, as there is only power (and those who won’t claim it for their own). Political scientists speak of hard power and soft power. Hard power is probably the most common perception of power: military might, the ability to force your will upon others. Soft power is, well, softer; it refers to the influence of culture upon peoples so that they begin to align with your own society. (The greatest example of soft power my professor knew of in 2006? Britney Spears. I would personally say Justin Bieber nowadays, as I wasn’t safe even in Incheon; his music was blaring over speakers in an ice cream shop.)

To me, power can be either hard or soft, and it takes any one of a plethora of forms. Power can be rolling tanks down Main Street. It can be silos full of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. It can be the ability to craft laws to accomplish your objectives, to make people bend to your will through policy. It can take the form of knowledge or blackmail or wealth or influence or prestige. It can be something as simple as the physical strength to crush someone’s windpipe.

But that’s a very limited (and rather macabre) view of power. I mean, all of those are fairly grandiose. To some people in the world, power is the ability to get out of a chair and walk across the room unassisted. It could be having enough to eat to maintain physical strength. Or to provide for one’s family, or to have the ability to fight disease, seek medical care, or hold down a job.

Power is relative.

I think, though, a stronger yet infinitely more subtle form of power comes in the ability to change someone’s mind without any coercive tactics whatsoever. Anyone can be a bully, but it takes finesse, skill, and rhetorical oompf to change the way someone thinks, to bring it into alignment with your own. And I’m not talking about “Yeah, that’s a great idea!” kinds of things. I mean life-changing paradigm shifts. To alter a worldview so that it becomes something other. Like a shift from atheism to theism, or from nominal Christianity to sold-out cross-carrying discipleship. To empower or enact that sort of willful change in someone is an even greater power than the ability to destroy a planet.

But there’s a far greater kind of power still. In this season of Advent, we look forward to the coming of Jesus. Not just the birth of the Christ Child we will celebrate during Christmas, but the second coming of Jesus as well. The Nativity is a special representation of power we often miss. The baby in the manger is fully human and fully God. His divinity was compressed into a human form, and that inevitably introduced conflict and a certain giving up of his divine prerogatives. Philippians 2:5-8 says this: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Theologians call this kenosis, the emptying. God Himself laid aside infinity and bound himself to a finite mortal form. He became a servant (literally a slave) to humanity. He served us in the most extreme, most loving way possible: he died for us. He lived a sinless life and died a horrific death to remove our sins from us.

But (praise God!) it doesn’t end there. John 10:17-8 states, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” This God-man gave up his life out of love, not because anyone murdered him against his will. And he took up his life again of his own ability, rising again the third day.

Now that is power. The power of laying aside everything, freely dying, and having the authority to come back from the dead to continue making intercession at the right hand of God the Father. This is a power no mortal being will ever be able to possess. This is the power of God and God alone.

And God alone has the power to return to this earth, to take his own unto himself, and to sit on a throne to judge the living and the dead. The power to redeem and the power to damn. This is the second coming which we look forward to in Advent: the fullness of the power of God made manifest in renewing His creation so that we may dwell with Him forever.

The power of God. The power of the nativity. The power of the Gospel.

F.A.Q. #4: What’s the Liturgical Year?

On the first day of Advent (two days ago, 30 November this year), I posted a simple “Happy new (liturgical) year!” on my social media profile. My seminary and ministry friends wished me the same, but other people commented or messaged me to ask, “What’s that mean?” It’s a question I hear a lot, particularly from people who attend or were raised in “non-liturgical” churches (everyone follows some sort of liturgy, though, whether they admit it or not). So today we’ll tackle the Christian calendar, seeking to answer the question “What’s the liturgical year?” or, as it may be more commonly asked, “Why do the colors in my church’s sanctuary change every so often?”

The word “liturgy” comes from two separate Greek words for “people” and “work” and literally means “the work of the people.” As we use it in church parlance, liturgy refers to the program/order of worship used in a corporate church worship service (sing a song, pass the peace, sing again, read the Scripture, hear a sermon, recite a creed, celebrate the Eucharist [or however your church does it]). The more formal or ritualized the service is, the more it has to be prayerfully programmed out, and so we say it’s more “liturgical.” The Roman Catholic Mass is a highly liturgical service, for example, with the parishioners playing a large role in the worship itself (this is also known as “high church”). Southern Baptist churches, on the other hand, while following their own liturgy of sorts, tend to be more free-flowing and sermon-oriented than the Mass and feature less congregational participation, and so we call it less liturgical (or “low church,” if you prefer).

In a broader sense, however, the Christian Church follows the Christian calendar, a.k.a. the liturgical year. Like any other calendar year, the church calendar features distinct seasons of worship. The first is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming Messiah (both in terms of Christmas and his second coming). Next comes Christmas — all twelve days of it, hence the song (which you are now humming). Christmas ends with Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the magi (for the West) and the baptism of Christ (in the East); either way, Epiphany is a day to celebrate the manifestation of Jesus to the larger world. After Epiphany is a brief period of Ordinary Time (which is exactly as it sounds; nothing major goes on) leading up to Lent. Lent is the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and it is observed through fasting and self-denial, preparation for the crucifixion of Jesus. Next comes Easter itself, a fifty-day observance of the resurrection of Our Lord, ending at Pentecost (literally “fifty”). From Pentecost until Advent, we return to Ordinary Time. Throughout each season, other observances occur, such as feast days of saints, Candlemas, Trinity Sunday, Holy/Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc.

Each distinct season is represented by its own color. Churches will change the decorations in the sanctuary, known as paraments, to the color corresponding with each season, and in churches where clergy don vestments, the color of the vestments (such as the stole, chasuble, or dalmatic) will change as well (more on vestments later). Advent is either blue or purple; Christmas and Easter are white; Lent is purple; and Ordinary Time is green. Pentecost, and feast days where observed, are red. The colors can change for other reasons as well (such as for weddings and funerals). So when the colors in the sanctuary have changed, you know you’ve entered a new liturgical season — and if you can recognize the color, you’ll know which one it is! (The liturgical year: color-coded for your convenience!)

The church year helps us cover our bases in worship, if you will. After forty days of Lent full of fasting and totally void of any “hallelujahs,” it’s much easier to both sympathize with the passion of the Christ and be more eager to truly mean it when you shout “Alleluia!” While most people in our contemporary society tend to skip Advent altogether and start singing Christmas carols, the season teaches us about expectation and hope as well as reminding us that Our Lord will return one day. Pentecost, somewhat tritely known as the birthday of the Church, nevertheless recalls to memory our origins as a worshiping community and the awesome blessings of the Holy Spirit.

The liturgical year allows us great joy, great lament, and times of ordinary Christian service. It reminds us of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how the Trinity interacts with us in our worship and in our daily lives. The Christian calendar provides an easy way to orient those daily lives to the Christian message, giving us easy paths to let our faith be seen in how we live each day.

Some churches still say following the liturgical year is “too Catholic,” and so they retain their forms of low church worship. To be fair, the calendar certainly wasn’t in existence in apostolic times, although they celebrated Easter and other observances. But to me, the church year is a great way to be in fellowship with the larger global church, and its value when followed in corporate worship and discipleship shouldn’t be underestimated.

And so, two days later, I’ll say it again: happy new year!