Stanley Grenz, professor of theology and ethics at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, wrote an article a few years ago about Christmas that I’ve kept in my files. It’s entitled, “Drive-Through Christmas” and deals with the dangers of rushing through the holiday season. Grenz dealt with the demise of waiting as an important feature of Christmas: “As members of the fast-food generation, we have become so eager to get to Christmas that we bypass Advent. Whereas our forebears enjoined fasting and reflection, we try to enjoy days filled with more Christmas festivities than we can endure. Christmas has replaced Advent on our calendars” (Christianity Today, 12/6/99, p.74). His remarks are even more relevant in the 21st century.
I’ve come from a Baptist church tradition where there wasn’t much build up to Christmas, except decorating the church and planning a pretty good cantata or musical. I recall choir members getting a little more tired than usual this time of year, a strain than is not all that uncommon among folks who use their vocal chords more than the rest of us. We’d have a month long missions emphasis and sometimes bring in a missionary speaker. More times than not, there would be a meal of some kind because it’s common knowledge that Baptists need to eat first before digesting a missions appeal. And yes, there were more parties than I can remember. Fortunately, the practice of getting together continues. But, I don’t recall hearing the word “advent” all that much as a child or teenager.
I think there is a reluctance among some Baptists to recognize Advent because they feel it is an Episcopal or Catholic thing, and that wouldn’t do in a Baptist church. This is unfortunate, because there is so much spiritual value to emphasizing Advent that is missed otherwise. I agree with Grenz that Christmas for the most part is THE day and almost everything else has little or no use (except for shopping days, of course). I’ve discovered a broader faith tradition that appreciates the Christian calendar and embraces the time of waiting and preparation prior to Christ’s birth. I’m glad to discover that more Baptist churches are becoming more open to Advent events.
One thing that I find particularly meaningful is the “Hanging of the Greens” service. I don’t really know if it’s supposed to be ‘greens’ or ‘green’ but something will be decorated on that first Sunday night of Advent. At our church, we’re using the children and youth pretty much exclusively to lead us in worship. They will be singing, playing instruments, reading, and praying and lighting the first candle. The final decorating touches will be made in the service as Chrismons and ornaments will be placed on the trees. We’ll enjoy these decorations for the entire month and each time we worship we will draw closer to the blessed day of Christ’s coming. Until then, we learn about waiting and focus on preparing spiritually for this annual pilgrimmage.
Another feature about Advent I enjoy is the wonderful singing. Those Christmas carols we sing every year still hold special meaning for me. Those hymns stay with us long after the last breath of the preacher’s sermon. I acknowledge this truth, even though I hope to say something of value to my people. This year, in particular, I look forward to hearing our choir sing with our sister congregation at FBC Chattanooga. Christmas brings folks together, and I’m grateful we’ll be able to celebrate in the manner.
We also have an Advent booklet with stories and devotionals written by church members. This way all of can be on the same page (literally) in our preparation and reading.
I suppose my favorite Advent event is the Christmas eve service. We will dim the lights and sing a few carols, hear a brief devotional from yours truly, and have Communion. This helps us remember why Jesus came to us in the first place. Each one of us will hold a candle, with that first one lighted by the Christ candle. We’ll sing “Silent Night” and leave in peace. When first introduced to this service several years ago, I didn’t think folks would show up the night before Christmas. Boy, was I wrong! It is one of the best attended and most meaningful times of the year.
The reason for this preview of our church events is not so much to promote activities but to emphasis the value of slowing down and enjoying the season, which extends beyond the 25th. Grenz said, “The irony of our situation is that in our rush toward Christmas, we end up truncating the celebration. . .We cannot even stretch Christmas to December 26, for Boxing Day entices us take our unwanted, reboxed gifts back to the stores or to buy boxes of the sale goods that draw us out in droves for one of the biggest shopping days of the year.” It’s true, many of us rush toward Christmas and can’t put on the brakes fast enough to stop and enjoy before looking ahead to the next thing.
With three children, I can expect some excitement and difficulty sleeping on the night before Christmas. Santa Claus is coming to town, and they expect me to know him personally. I’ll want to enjoy the wonder of the season now and for years to come through pictures of Cally, Lucy, and Matt as they change and grow each year. The best way to do that is to avoid fast-forwarding through the preliminary events and experiences leading up to December 25. I’ll do my share of shopping and going to parties, but my real desire is to “treasure up” the richness of the season. Advent helps me do that.