Subdued message as Advent begins Christmas is a time for joy, but pastors also urge reflection

November 30, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

By the calendar, it's still November, but already our consumer culture says: "It's Christmastime."

Christian churches, however, say: "Not so fast."

Today begins the season of Advent, the nearly four weeks of waiting and anticipation of the birth of Jesus Christ in most Christian churches. Orthodox Christian churches do not commemorate a season of Advent, but observe a fast before Christmas.

But while Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, many theologians and pastors try to convey a more subdued message during Advent.

"It is a time for reflection," said the Rev. Donald L. Burggraf, pastor of First English Lutheran Church in Guilford. "A time we can get centered on the things that are most important in life so we can prepare ourselves to receive the greatest gift, alongside the other gifts that come our way."

The danger in jumping the gun in celebrating Christmas is that the feast gets short shrift, said the Rev. Peter C. Bower, a pastor in Pittsburgh who is an authority on liturgy in the Presbyterian church.

"By and large, much of the culture believes it is at this time of the year that we celebrate the Christmas season," he said. "It is not a great surprise, therefore, that on Dec. 26 or 27, people are done. They're tired. Whereas in Christianity, the Christmas season begins on that first day. We celebrate the Christmas season for 12 days and it culminates in the day of Epiphany on Jan. 6."

Advent has its sobering side, which is clear from a glance at the Gospel reading from Luke for today's service, which talks of the endtimes and the second coming of Christ: "And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken."

"In Christian thought, there is a sense of safety and comfort for those people who abide in God, and a sense of terror for those who are bold enough to wander away or believe there is no God in the first place," said the Rev. David Albert Farmer, pastor of University Baptist Church in North Baltimore. "So there is a dark tone to Advent as well."

Advent is a time of preparation for the presence of Christ in three forms: the celebration of his incarnation in history, the acknowledgment of his presence now, and the anticipation of his coming again. In its early history, Advent was a time of penitence, much like the season of Lent before Easter.

"Its mood is one of anticipation or expectation, watching for the coming of Christ," said William Collinge, professor of theology and philosophy at Mount St. Mary's College and Seminary in Emmitsburg. "It has had kind of a penitential cast from early on."

Advent was originally a Gallic custom that originated in the fifth and sixth centuries and involved 40 days of prayer and fasting before the celebration of Christmas. It eventually found its way to Rome. Pope Gregory I standardized the Advent season, shortening it to four weeks and composing prayers for the liturgy.

Although the penitential nature of Advent has been toned down considerably, most churches preserve a sense of its solemnity. Decorations are spare, especially in the first weeks of Advent. In many sanctuaries, the only sign of the season is the Advent wreath -- four candles, one of which is lighted each Sunday, surrounded by a circular wreath of evergreens.

Many churches prefer to emphasize the sense of anticipation and building excitement, particularly as Christmas gets closer.

"In our church, we'll sing a stanza of 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel' on the first Sunday of Advent," said Burggraf of First English Lutheran Church. "On the second Sunday, we'll sing two stanzas, on the third Sunday we'll sing three stanzas and on the fourth Sunday we'll sing four. We'll kind of march our way through the season as we wait for Emmanuel to come."

Harold A. Carter Jr., pastor of New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore, sees the season "as a time of great celebration."

"Particularly as African-Americans, we see this as a time of all the more celebration because Christ has not just come to save us in regard to our spiritual selves, but we see it also as liberation as regards to our own people's sufferings from social injustices."

The spirit of Advent is perhaps best embodied by the symbol of the Advent wreath. "There is a sense of moving from darkness to light," noted the Rev. David Cobb, rector of Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church downtown. "It's really ancient stuff," he said. "It really ties into the winter solstice. The Advent wreath conveys a sense of growing light as we move toward God's presence among us."

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