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.
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 1: 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.
In Vieira’s opinion, experiencing the liturgical calendar well helps to develop a “sacramental vision of reality” that combats religious consumerism and re-emphasizes spiritual formation and discpleship.
That is why helping believers to distinguish between Advent and Christmas is a vital need for the Brazilian church right now, he adds.
“The biggest difficulty is to better understand the difference between Advent and Christmas and to observe Advent in an appropriate way, with the help of traditional Christian practices and a lectionary, a tool that we have been promoting in Brazil.”
Misconception 2: Advent is not biblical.
Some evangelicals may also hold the perception that Advent is not biblical because it is nowhere mentioned in Scripture.
Evangelicals often find themselves “divorced” from church history and tradition. Some may come from Low-Church backgrounds that place greater emphasis on topical preaching and personal piety than on following the historical church calendar to order services or using call-and-response prayers communally.
But recovering an understanding of church tradition can shed light on why Advent is a biblically grounded season in which believers may shape their faith according to God’s Word and truth.
“Evangelicals should study [church] tradition, for we are not the first to seek answers to difficult questions and problems in theology. However, we must not elevate the tradition to inviolable, authoritative status,” wrote Baptist theologian Roger E. Olson.
Advent reflects the Bible in highlighting the centrality of Christ and his salvific work, Episcopalian priest Fleming Rutledge argues.
“Advent always begins in the dark. But there is a ‘but,’ and we find it revealed in the story that the scriptures tell,” Rutledge wrote.
“That is the Advent message: In a world of profound darkness and distress, pervasive sin and evil, we look to the one true light—Christ Jesus, the Son of God.”
Some Christians might hold the view that liturgical worship should be patterned only after New Testament texts and not on its historical development over the centuries, says Gener, the Filipino theologian.
But the formation of the Christian liturgical year—Advent included—goes back to how the early church incorporated cultural practices of their day into their worship life.
“Jewish synagogue practices and festivals were assumed and shared by Jesus and his disciples, and these practices were refashioned by Christ’s disciples in light of the Christ event, which evolved later into historic Christian worship,” Gener said.
Lula Derœux, a Baptist pastor in France, finds it meaningful to observe Advent even if the Bible does not explicitly mention it: “If the Bible doesn’t tell us how and when to celebrate the birth of Christ, the Bible encourages us to remember and to build our relationship with God.
“Our need to celebrate, to prepare our longing hearts and to praise the Lord in the waiting transcends all cultures and all ages.”
Misconception 3: Advent is only about Jesus’ birth.
Since Advent comes before Christmas on December 25, there is an assumption that it simply is a lead-up to celebrating the day of Christ’s birth.
However, when Christians first observed Advent, they anticipated the return of Christ, not his birth. This changed in the Middle Ages when Advent became a time to remember and celebrate the incarnation of Jesus, even as the “traditional” approach to Advent remained.
“Advent spirituality is not a time to meditate on the actual birth of Christ. According to tradition, we ought not to sing Christmas carols until Christmas itself, for Advent is not a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the manger but a time to long for the coming of the Savior,” wrote Robert E. Webber in Ancient-Future Time.
Advent was originally a time of fasting and self-reflection too, CT executive editor Ted Olsen wrote.
To Vieira, Advent is a “penitential” season that affords believers a time for discipline and intentional repentance.
“A deep reflection on the liturgical tradition shows us that Advent embodies a tension of joining the enactment of the old covenant peoples’ expectation for redemption and the new covenant peoples’ expectation for the consummation that will come with the second coming of Christ,” he said.
Some traditional hymns and readings during the Advent season reflect a yearning for Christ’s return, says Margery.
“I think particularly of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.’ One sings it generally as a sort of plea for Christ to be born, putting oneself in the place of the saints of Israel who longed for his coming. But I have the impression that it is echoing the final prayer of Revelation [22:20, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’].”
The eschatological longing that Advent encapsulates is a key component of the season that cannot be overlooked.
“They frequently point toward a fulfillment in the prophet’s own time but also direct our gaze toward the Messiah and his first coming as well as the Second Advent we await.”
“To be in Advent is to dwell in the ‘already/not yet’ of the kingdom of God,” said Derœux.
“It allows us to remember the promises of the Lord and the extent to which he cares for us. The patience and preparation it took to give a Savior to humanity is breathtaking, and to be able to not only remember but to live this particular time [out] is a blessing.
“We could read the whole Old Testament and see an Advent, a dawn to a new beginning.”