If You’re Cynical About Advent

For liturgy-loving Christians, Advent is a season of anticipation, marked by a posture of hopeful and expectant waiting.

But for many evangelicals, it may pass by almost unnoticed and unobserved, whether due to an unfamiliarity with the church’s liturgical calendar or a cynicism toward Catholic practices.

Advent means “arrival” or “appearing” and comes from the Latin word adventus. Each year, the season begins four Sundays before Christmas and lasts until December 25. It is divided into a period that focuses on Christ’s second coming and another that focuses on his birth. (Orthodox Christians observe a similar event, the Nativity Fast, from November 15 to December 24 before the Nativity Feast on December 25.)

Advent began in fourth- and fifth-century Gaul and Spain as a season intended to prepare believers’ hearts for Epiphany (January 6), not Christmas. Epiphany is a day to commemorate the Magi’s visit after Jesus’ birth (in the West) or Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River (in the East).

Today, Advent customs may include reading and praying through an Advent devotional and lighting one of four candles inside an Advent wreath each Sunday, corresponding to four weekly themes: hope, love, joy, and peace. Most wreaths also include a centrally placed candle to symbolize Jesus, the Light of the World.

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Yet, in parts of the Majority World and in countries where Catholicism is the dominant religion, evangelicals do not typically observe Advent.

French evangelical churches ignore Advent as part of “a gut reaction against anything that is liturgical, because it smacks of Catholicism,” said Gordon Margery, a Baptist lecturer at the Nogent-sur-Marne Bible Institute who lives outside of Paris.

Few “historic evangelical, Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches” in Latin America participate in Advent, says Colombian pastor Dionisio Orjuela. “Only churches like the Lutheran, Anglican and Episcopalian (along with the Catholics) observe the Advent season.”

CT spoke with Christian leaders from Brazil, Colombia, France, and the Philippines to find out more about how these misconceptions may be addressed, particularly in majority-Catholic contexts.

Misconception : Advent is an exclusively Roman Catholic practice.

“Most Protestants today have no idea what occurred in the church for nearly a thousand years. Yet they are confident of one thing: Whatever did occur during the premodern era is not worth our time and can only corrupt Christianity,” wrote Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Matthew Barrett earlier this year.

On the whole, the church calendar was seen as a Catholic invention. Protestants who were suspicious of innovations and trying to get back to the practices of the New Testament church got rid of it. (The Puritans never celebrated Christmas, much less Advent, either.)

This sentiment might very well apply to evangelical perceptions of Advent, where many regard the season as a predominantly Catholic ritual that has little to no purpose or relevance for one’s spiritual life.

But evangelicals all around the world today, from the Philippines to Brazil, do take part in Advent.

“These evangelicals come from historic denominations (e.g., Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist) which take seriously the historical development of worship and make allowances for historical conditions in their practices while seeking to be faithful to implement biblical principles in contextualizing worship,” said Timoteo Gener, president of FEBIAS College of Bible in the Philippines.

In Brazil, Advent is the liturgical season that has received the most acceptance among evangelicals, says Daniel Vieira, director of the Lecionário project.

Isabel Ong

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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