The Case for Advent

Let me just say this up front: I love the Church of Christ. Prior to the good-natured and gentle rebuke, I state for the record that the Church of Christ does considerably more good than harm, and that I for one have suffered no irreparable damage from my experiences in that denomination. Despite her flaws and freckles, and even with her red-faced, arm-crossed “I’ll just have a piece of dry toast, no butter or jam for me, thank you very much” approach to the Christian faith, I love her still.

She was was my nursemaid in the faith, the place where I learned scripture and where loving and caring hands laid the foundation of my Christian formation. The Church of Christ is the community where I remain to this day and where my children are also learning to walk in faith. I confess no small amount of loyalty to my tradition. But I also believe that family ought to be able to talk openly and honestly to one another. And with all that said, I offer up my childhood memories of the sometimes comical, a little bit pagan, always bare-boned “Church of Christ Christmas,” along with the case for Advent and tradition in the life of the Christian.

I guess when you get down to it, I have always been a devotee of pomp and circumstance. I remember as a child being fascinated with and attracted to the many colorful sights, smells and traditions of the “other churches” around town during this time of year: the hanging of the greens, Advent wreaths, aromatic incense, nativity scenes and the warm and colorful glow of candles behind stained glass on a snowy, December night.

I longed to venture inside the other churches and to peek behind the story-filled stained glass and perhaps catch a glimpse of the mysteries unfolding away from my own reductionistic and rationalistic tradition. I desired to add my voice to the rhythmic chant of scripture and creed, to speak in unison with saints past and present and to fall into step with the ancient cadence of Christian pilgrims who for centuries had traveled the road of faith before me.

At my own church, mention of the Baby Jesus during the Christmas season was taboo, just like the subject of the Resurrection during Easter. We carefully excised all mention of Christ’s birth, but with few exceptions eagerly joined in the more general spirit of Christmas cheer. In doing so, we unwittingly participated in the pagan feast of Saturnalia. Just like the ancient Romans, we exchanged gifts and did good deeds of charity and celebrated in feast and song. Along with the Druids, we hung our circular wreaths and decorated our trees, all the while oblivious to their ancient pagan symbolism. Like the secular Brits of the Victorian era, we embraced the good cheer and revelry (minus the alcohol, of course) of the bacchanalianFather Christmas.”

But when if came to Christian overtones, we dared not mimic “those Catholics and Episcopalians.” Instead, we stood in the corner like self-righteous wallflowers while the rest of Christendom feasted and danced in celebration. “We celebrate Christmas and Easter every Sunday,” some would say. Others would chime in, “There is no scriptural command!” I remember wondering what would happen if a husband failed to mention his wedding to his wife on their anniversary, citing the excuse, “I celebrate our wedding every day, dear. There is no scriptural command, ergo, no need for all the pomp and circumstance.” Somehow, I remember thinking, that probably wouldn’t go over very well.

Such presumptive precision would of course fall flat because humans are by nature, and for good reason, commemorative creatures. Early Christians did not look to scripture for express commands on every jot and tittle of faith and practice. Instead, they retained the spirit of festival, and like their Jewish forebears, celebrated and encouraged “sacred time” as a means of nourishing and encouraging the faithful.

To pause and remember, to feast on God’s bounty, to create colorful commemorations and celebrations are urges as natural as breathing. To choke and suppress these noble instincts is to cut off a vital piece of our humanity and to invite drabness and the death of mystery. To disregard tradition is to turn a deaf ear to the voices of the past and to still the ancient song of “deep calling to deep.”

Against this sweeping tide of dry reductionism stood my father, who had more than a little of a mischievous streak. He was an elder in our church and also the regular songleader, and on occasion he liked to stir the pot a little. Around this time of year, with a trace of a wry smile forming on the corners of his lips, he would lead traditional Christmas favorites like Silent Night or Away in a Manger, invoking a few hard glances and a snide comment or two from the folks who he felt took themselves and their hard and fast opinions a bit too seriously.

Looking back, I think he was teaching as much as he was tweaking, sending the message that God would be pleased with any effort, no matter how “unscriptural,” if it was done to honor his Son and to turn our thoughts toward the mystery of Incarnation.

And so the seeds planted by the father took root in the son, and today I embrace the tradition of Advent with it’s call for self-examination and “wakefulness” in light of the first coming of long ago and the second one yet to come. During the evening meal, our family gathers around our Advent wreath and lights the candles–purple for penitence, pink for joy, white for the purity of Christ. Together we trek “up the mountain” to All Saints’ Chapel at Sewanee and join hundreds of other pilgrims in the Service of Lessons and Carols. At First United Methodist Church in Huntsville, we participate in the medieval Boar’s Head Festival and learn the moving story of Good King Wenceslas who was determined to bring food, wine and warmth to a poor man and invited his young page and assistant to “mark his footsteps” and to “tread now in them boldly” as the night grew darker and the winter wind blew more strongly. On Christmas Eve, we seek out a liturgical church and join the queue near the altar around midnight, eagerly anticipating the coming of Jesus in the bread and the wine.

In all of this, we are nourished and fed by the sense and sensibility of those who have come before us and the traditions of those “on whose shoulders we stand.” Regarding tradition, G.K. Chesterton wrote:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

Such “chronological snobbery,” as C.S. Lewis called it, lies at the root of the objections of my childhood naysayers. They were the ones who, after all these centuries, finally discerned the thoughts and minds of the early Christians, perhaps even better than the early Christians themselves.

To reject an invitation to the Christmas feasts out of conscience is not a sin, for “each one should be full convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5-7).” Christianity is about more than feasts and special days to be sure. But to decline and at the same time condemn those who accept, is to be guilty of the sin of presumption, which, while having “the appearance of wisdom,” in the end forces an unhealthy asceticism on others in an unloving and arbitrary manner that has no place in the Christian life (Colossians 2:16-23).

Pardon me, but I think I’ll take a pass on such preening and opt for the pomp and pageantry of Advent and Christmas in all their fully-orbed Christian splendor. I don’t mind you choosing the wallflower option, but please don’t step on my dancing shoes. I’ll take the Mother and Child, a dirty, smelly manger and God-in-the-flesh over Saturnalia any day.

  1. The Chad

    My experience growing up in the C of C has been much as you describe. However, slowly things are changing and I think people are continually surprised to find out that other people feel the same way they do. I think this is similar to the feeling many people have of being the lone sinner on Sunday AM.

    Say it with me people, emotion is not a bad thing.


  2. mike


    Glad you stopped by. Yes, I agree, things are changing, perhaps a move away from the tired, old sectarian spirit. In my own church (a very large one) I see a very broad range of belief on this and other matters–there is no monolithic viewpoint. As a result, the leadership is left with the somewhat awkward task of trying to split the difference in order to keep the majority of the folks happy most of the time.

    It is very plain from the New Testament that early Christians continued to celebrate various festivals and “special days.” Ironically, those who recognize Holy Days are the true conservatives, while those who have hacked away at the Christian calendar since the Protestant Reformation are the real innovators coming late onto the scene.

  3. extremist

    I didn’t “grow up in the Church,” so I find a lot of the generalizations about the bad old days ring hollow for me. I wonder what people are talking about. I was baptized in a small, rural Church in 1989 and have never experienced a hint of the things I hear most people lament. No congregation I’ve ever been to hesitated to sing nativity themed songs at Christmas. I was taught that the seasonal timing seems to be off — that the birth more likely occurred in the spring. But, it was no big deal.

    In our family, we haven’t gone as far as you have, but we do have an Advent calendar and we read Jotham’s Journey to the kids. 🙂

  4. mike


    I’m glad you’ve not experienced that particular CofC quirk. And I’m not saying that this predominates my memories of a CofC upbringing–on the contrary, the good childhood experiences far outweigh the bad.

    What I am pointing to (and it’s something that still exists, especially here in the “deeper” south) is the arrogance accompanying the notion that boiling away all elements of tradition is somehow more pleasing to God than joining in the celebration. For me, Christmas is an opportunity to give some flesh and bones to Jesus prayer for unity in John 17; for others of my circle, it remains an opportunity to be “set apart” from those other “religious people” (the term still used in my church from the pulpit to describe other Christians).

    I attend the largest Church of Christ in Huntsville. For the next month, there will be a tug of war between those who would want a traditional Christian Christmas and the the good-hearted but essentially Saturnalia crowd. Our worship leader may succeed in slipping in a traditional Christmas song at some point, but that will be countered by statements such as “we must get beyond the baby” as was the case last year. Get beyond the mysterious miracle of God being born into human flesh–Incarnation–to what exactly? More Saturnalia?

  5. contratimes

    My dear, dear man. What a lovely piece of writing you have here. It is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject, and it is one of the best things I’ve read on the web. Truly beautiful prose, with a wonderful tone. You should be proud (and published). To think, you’re just an eye doctor.

    I can’t understand the C of C thing at all, having not been raised in that traditionless tradition. My roots reach into the Dutch Reformed Church, Episcopalianism, Catholicism. Currently, I am a former evangelical confirmed as an Episcopalian in New Hampshire (yes, I know the gay bishop). But what of the C of C idea that nothing should be practiced that is not commanded in scripture? For the life of me it makes no sense whatsoever. Where, for instance, is it written that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are supposed to be regarded as canonical? Where in the New Testament does it say that we are to read Paul and not The Shepherd of Hermas, or the Didache (both of which were read by the early church)? It is all so confusing.

    I am a sacramentalist through and through. Perhaps that is the artist in me, though I think it is more the artist in God. Thomas Howard, my friend (and former professor) and C.S. Lewis aficionado (and best friend of Peter Kreeft), wrote a terrific book describing his move from plain-wall evangelicalism to gaudy Episcopalianism. The book has an unfortunate title (Howard at least thinks so). It’s called Evangelical Is Not Enough and is available through Ignatius Press. It is a capital little book, and it is unbelievably helpful in describing exactly what it is that we liturgists are doing in corporate worship. Seriously, if you’ve not read it, I promise you that it will bless you immeasurably. It transformed my worship life. (On top of that, he is one the best Christian writers alive, a true writer’s writer. It is a shame he is not better known.)

    Thank you for reminding me of the beauty, the power, and the necessity of all things Advent, and all things sacred. I have fallen complacent of late, though my indifference is largely due to my personal battle with the Bishop of New Hampshire.

    Peace and glad tidings,


  6. mike


    The last time anyone commented on my prose was my 11th grade English teacher, and he didn’t use terms as complimentary as yours–thank you. Coming from someone like you who can turn some pretty pleasing phrases himself, that means a lot to me.

    I have had the opportunity to teach church history on several occasions and I always try to add a dose of history to whatever topic I am covering. So, if anyone has been standing within earshot of me the past decade, they have heard me say, “The biblical canon is a tradition” (and I always add–“a darn good one!”). So, we are not really traditionless, we’ve only allowed ourselves to think we are. From that beginning point, I’ve looked into whether there might be other useful traditions, not necessarily directly expressed in biblical command but practiced by early Christians who understand such things to be a part of the “rule of faith” handed down by the apostles, that might be useful. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are many such practices, and I have been enriched and nourished by them.

    You know the Bishop of New Hampshire, Thomas Howard and Peter Kreeft? Wow, you have run with some fast company. I read Howard’s trilogy including EINE several years ago. Talk about soaring, lyrical prose! Howard’s makes mine look like it’s fairly limping! Yes, a great book, expressing with clarity many movements of my heart that I had trouble articulating myself.

    Thanks again for stopping by and adding to the discussion. There are several who read my blog who have told me that they enjoy hearing from you, so don’t be a stranger. Blessings to you and your family this Advent and Christmas season.

  7. contratimes

    Perhaps I should not have tooted my horn so loudly. But I do know each man, though Howard I know the best. I’ve only spoken to Kreeft twice since I graduated from Gordon College in 1984. Kreeft was there for one year as a visiting professor in the Philosophy department (he was then and remains now a Boston College prof). I managed to take a few courses with him (I was a double major, theology and philosophy).

    Howard, as you may know, was a longtime prof at Gordon before he left for more Catholic digs. He and I still regularly communicate. But I cannot say that we are close, though we did luncheon alone together not that long ago. Howard even gave me my first, and only, rosary beads.

    As for Gene Robinson, he and I do know each other. One month before his consecration as bishop, we met for a face-to-face at a local café. I was the junior warden of a wonderful parish, and I wanted a direct conversation with a man I fundamentally opposed. He met me, and we had what I would call an “elegant dispute”. Our 90 minutes of debate were lively, kind, and engaging. Of course, neither of us changed his mind. A month later, I would be a sad, weeping member of a small protest group that solemnly marched out of his consecration ceremonies. To this day, with a torn heart, I continue to protest his bishopric and his blatantly political agenda. My involvement in the church has waned to the point of apostasy.

    I continue to see him now and then, and I occasionally speak to his ex-wife (we used to work at the same business). His commitment to “radical hospitality”, which is radical solely in its inhospitality, renders me an outsider. I am not REALLY invited to the table, unless I conform to the new paradigm.

    But enough of all that. I am glad that you have read Howard. That is enough to gladden my heart.



  8. Todd Ramsey

    Well said Mike. I still get a little uncomfortable around this time of year, afraid of what my mom would say if she saw me singing Christmas hymns and participating in a nativity “skit” (We don’t go all out like the baptists do in my church!)

    I hope that one day soon the fear of certain traditions and the love of others will fade away. (upon a second reading of that sentence, it appears that I wish for old people to die. That’s not what I mean at all. Seriously. No chronological snobbery here!)

  9. don

    A wonderful post, and I (a 50-year-old lifelong C-of-C’er) see this attitude becoming the rule rather than the exception more each year. Thank God we are becoming able to celebrate his gift to us!

    ..and you DO write well, too.

  10. mike

    Thanks for stopping by and lending your thoughts. It’s so hard to sort through the “baggage” that is a CofC upbringing. There are some good things in there I don’t want to throw away; there is also some plain old junk that needs to be tossed. My Dad, whether he realized it or not, lightened my load by not burdening me with a long list of CoC quirks (and he was an elder, no less!). Yes, and a very special one.

  11. mike

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post and for your kind remarks. God offers us a sumptuous feast, but so many times we have said, “No thanks, dry toast for me please!”

    When I read John 2 and the miracle at Cana and all the times that Jesus compared the Kingdom to a wedding feast, I am reminded that the celebrations that we have here and now which honor his generosity are merely shadow of what is to come.

    Song,dance,celebration–technicolor. All will be part of what is to come–better start practicing now!

  12. Kile

    This is great stuff here. As almost everyone else has said you do write beautifully. You have brought back many memories from my childhood that are today pleasant but at the time confusing.

    I am a C of C’er from the cradle and remember being taught that Jesus was probably born in the spring (did anyone else see the fascinating History Channel show where the archeo-astronemer calculated the Jesus was born on March 17th based on the stars that the Magi must have been seen when they started their trip to Bethlehem.) and that we should not celebrate the Catholic tradition of Christmas.

    Today, while I am still a member of the Church of Christ, I revel in revelry of the holiday season. I intend on attending several liturgical worship services this year. I especially look forward to attending the local Orthodox church so I can celebrate Christmas in January.

  13. mike

    I remember similar reasons being given for not celebrating–“we all know he was actually born in the spring,” as if all the other Christians didn’t have access to our “special knowledge” and scientific precision and therefore the joke must be on them!

    It makes me wonder: if Christmas had been celebrated on Christ’s actual birthday rather than replacing the Roman Saturnalia, would we have joined in then? Would the accurate date have made all the difference? Probably not. “Catholic is Catholic” correct date or not!

    That’s a great idea about hooking up with the Orthodox church and carrying the celebration on into the New Year!

    Peace of the Christ Child to you and your family this Christmas.

  14. Jorge Toussaint

    Congratulations for using your Blog Page about your faith. I am missionary in Guatemala and I appreciate more and more the great faith the Lord gave us.
    I make blogs here in spanish and french as CICM2005.
    Fr. Georges Toussaint

  15. mike

    Fr. Toussaint–
    Thanks for stopping by and for your encouragement. May the Lord bless your work in Guatemala and your blogging as well!

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