A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, Dec. 1, 2013
Psalm 62:5-7; Micah 5:2, 4-5a NRSV
Why is the season of Advent so important? That is the question of the day.
Since coming to the United Church, I have had a few people question me about the importance and the meaning of Advent. And I have had a few ask me why we don’t sing nothing but Christmas hymns the entire month of December. Well, those are fair enough questions. And in trying to address those questions, I hope you will not think that I am pointing a finger at anyone who might have asked them.
And here is the reason why: The church that I grew up in didn’t celebrate Advent—at all. We didn’t have an Advent wreath. We didn’t sing Advent hymns. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of Advent until I moved to the other end of the state and started attending seminary. Rather than sing Advent hymns, in my home church we started singing Christmas hymns the first Sunday of December. A few of you have told me that you had the same experience in the church of your upbringing.
But over the years, I have come to realize just how important the season of Advent is, not only as a prelude to Christmas, but also as a season in its own right. As I noted in today’s thought for meditation, just as you can’t have Easter without Good Friday, you need Advent to fully appreciate Christmas. In fact, today—the first Sunday of Advent—has become one of my favorite Sunday services of the year. You may have noticed that today’s service started on a somewhat somber note with that beloved Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which is written in a minor key. The second hymn was a bit somber and in a minor key as well. The responsive reading started off a bit somber. The scripture readings speak of waiting, longing, and hope. And then the service progresses from its somber beginning and ends on a joyful note of hope with the hymn “Come, Thou-Expected Jesus.”
Advent is the official beginning of the new liturgical year. Advent as a special season of the church year can be dated back to the fourth century. The liturgical color of Advent is purple (or violet) or blue. The color purple stands for royalty. But many churches, like ours, have adopted blue as the color of Advent to distinguish it from the purple of Lent, which also symbolizes penitence. Blue is a color of joy and celebration.
So, to address the question: Why do we need the season of Advent? One reason we need the season of Advent is it is a time of spiritual discipline and emphasis. The season of Christmas, as you know, has become an almost exclusively secular or commercialized holiday. And by secular I mean the emphasis during the Christmas season upon Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and so on. Christmas to most of America means shopping malls, camping out at Best Buy for the pre-Christmas sales, gift exchange, parties and holiday spirits (and I don’t mean the God-Spirits), and such. Perhaps you saw on the world news the shopping mall brawls that occurred this week. In one instance, two women were wrestling in the aisle of the store over a tv set. Many people of other world religions celebrate Christmas, but apart from any spiritual aspects of the season.
Advent, on the other hand—with its emphasis upon scripture readings, hymns, and spiritual virtues—reminds us of the spiritual reason of the season. (And I don’t mean that in a clichéd, bumper sticker or license plate sort of way.) The season of Advent helps keep us grounded and gives us an alternative to the commercialized holiday madness.
We need the season of Advent because it is a season of waiting and longing. Historically and traditionally, the Jewish people were waiting and longing for a Messiah, a deliverer, to be born. The early Christians picked up on that idea, and saw in Jesus a form of that long-awaited Messiah. And so, early on Advent was a season to wait and long for the coming of the Messiah—past, present and future. It traditionally was a time to think about Jesus’ coming as a Bethlehem baby; his present coming in spirit to all who open their hearts to him (as that beloved Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” phrases it: “Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in);” and his future coming as bringer of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Such was the traditional focus of Advent waiting and longing.
We might compare Advent as a season of waiting and longing to the engagement before the wedding. How important is the period of engagement, so that the bride and groom to-be can plan, anticipate, and long for that special day to come. So it is with the season of Advent. The season of Advent as a time of planning, anticipation, and longing helps keep the month of December from becoming a pre-Christmas, commercialized blur. So if we have embraced the opportunities that Advent presents to us, we should approach Christmas day somewhat spiritually refreshed and feeling good about how we spent the month of December.
We need the season of Advent because of its contrast between darkness and light. It is no accident that Advent and Christmas fall during the darkest time of the year. It was planned that way by the Church Fathers, for at least a couple of reasons. One reason was to replace among the churches pagan festivals celebrating the winter solstice and increasing light with the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Also, during the darkest time of the year when light is so important, the early Church Fathers thought it appropriate that the birth of Jesus—“the Light of the world”—be celebrated.
During Advent, we are given occasion to reflect on the themes of darkness and light, which can become a metaphor for those spiritual times of darkness and light in our lives, and the many ways that Light becomes a wonderful gift to us. The dark days of Advent provide us with wonderful opportunities to sit in a cozy chair by candlelight or a warm fire to catch up on reading that we find spiritually uplifting, be it scripture, poetry, or something by Anne Lamott or some other writer that speaks to our soul.
We need the season of Advent because of its emphasis upon hope. If the season of Advent is anything, it is a season of hope. It is appropriate that the first candle of the Advent Wreath is the candle of hope, as hope is the prevailing mood throughout the season. Advent hope prods us to long for, dream about, and do what we can to usher in a better world. Each Advent season brings with it the rekindling of hope that greater goodwill, greater understanding, and greater compassion among all people will take root and grow. Advent hope leads us to be more sensitive to the homeless, needy, suffering, and oppressed of our world. It leads us to give a little bit more, and to step out of our comfort zone to be kinder and gentler to those in our lives.
And so, we have the four Sundays of Advent to lead us to think upon these and related matters. We have the four candles of the Advent wreath to remind us of the importance of those spiritual virtues of hope, peace, love, and joy. We have those special Advent hymns to help us reflect in ways that we would not otherwise.
But I am not inflexible or hard-nosed. So next Sunday, we will include at least one Christmas hymn along with the Advent hymns. And two Christmas hymns the third Sunday of Advent. Then all Christmas hymns the fourth Sunday of Advent. How is that for compromising?
To repeat what I said earlier, not only is Advent a fitting prelude to celebrating Christmas. It also holds great importance as a season in its own right. My hope is that you might come to appreciate the season of Advent as much as I have. Amen.