It has a long way to go before it reaches the secular awareness of the holiday it precedes. But Advent, the four-week period of pre-Christmas spiritual preparation observed by many Christians, is starting to make its own secular mark, too.
Skeptical? Then just check out the “Star Wars” and “Angry Birds” Advent calendars on Amazon.com.
Still, even given such mild forays into yuletide pop culture, Advent — which begins today and runs until Christmas — remains an observance with deep spiritual roots.
The word “advent” means “coming” or “arrival,” said the Rev. Toby Joeckel, pastor of First Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. “So it’s a celebration of the coming of God into the flesh.”
Like Lent — the period that, in many Christian traditions, precedes Easter — Advent “is a season for repentance,” Joeckel added, “because you’re preparing not only for God to come into flesh, but there also are overtones to the second Advent, which is the coming of Christ to Earth.”
Advent dates to the early Christian church. Today, it continues to be observed in many churches with liturgical traditions, including the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican churches.
“In fact, it is one of the traditions we adopted during the Reformation, when the Protestant church split with a number of traditions of the Roman Catholic Church,” said the Rev. Jim Houston-Hencken, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church. “So we’ve been celebrating it since the earliest days.”
In many denominations, the first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new church year. During Advent, Scripture readings and sermons focus in part on Old Testament texts “which predict the coming of Christ,” Houston-Hencken said.
So do the hymns sung during Advent, he added. “Probably the one most people know is ‘O Come, O Come, Emanuel.’ It’s a hymn of expectation and preparation.”
Priests will wear purple vestments during Advent, said the Rev. Gerald Grupczynski, pastor of Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church, because purple is “a royal color, and that anticipates the coming of Christ, who we recognize as our universal king.”
At home, families may light Advent wreaths fashioned out of four candles set in a circular holder. Each candle represents one week of Advent, and, traditionally, three of the candles are violet while one is rose-colored, Grupczynski said.
“The circle of the Advent wreath itself is important,” he added. A circle has no beginning and no end, and the circular Advent wreath represents “the fact that God is eternal and has no beginning and no end. And it’s usually made of evergreens. That also reminds us of the fact that God is never-changing and is always the same today and tomorrow.”
The Advent wreath is one element of Advent that has grown beyond its religious beginnings into a secular holiday decor touch. So is the Advent calendar, in which each day of Advent is represented by the opening of a door or the addition of an item to the calendar. In some Advent calendars, a daily piece of chocolate or a treat is revealed on each day of Advent.
Although Advent calendars feature religious imagery and themes, they’re increasingly available in more secular editions that feature Santa Claus or other yuletide scenes — or, for that matter, likenesses from “Star Wars” or “Angry Birds.”
But, incipient commercialism notwithstanding, Advent remains for many Christians “a kind of joyful and anticipatory-slash-penitential time when people anticipate the coming of Christ, remembering that he was the promised Messiah,” Grupczynski said.
From a practical standpoint, celebrating Advent can offer celebrants the chance to step back from the secular pressures of the holiday season.
“The focus of most Advent worship and worship activities is to help people focus on the coming of Christ and to not be so overwhelmed by Christmas — the secular need to shop and entertain and go to parties and all of these great celebration things,” Houston-Hencken said.
It even can offer celebrants the chance to enjoy the holiday season and not rush headlong into Christmas. In our culture, “everything is celebrated ahead of time,” Grupczynski said, making it “hard to keep the true meaning of Advent.”
The Rev. Mark Lansberry, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, said the purpose of Advent is “to take that time to step back to reflect on the meaning of Jesus — his life, his death, his resurrection — and what it means.”
Advent “encourages us to use that time in expectation and waiting,” he said, rather than in merely rushing out “and getting everything done.”
Yet, amid the secular trappings of the race to Christmas, Advent may be given short shrift.
“I think it depends on what part of the country you’re in,” Joeckel said. When he was a pastor on the East Coast, he observed that Advent is practiced more strongly there than in the West.
“In our secular society, of course, it’s all about Christmas and Santa Claus and the trees and the presents and all of that kind of stuff,” Lansberry said. “We notice that even in our churches.
“People get to the season and, of course, you hear the Christmas carols and music in the malls and on the radio, and they want to start singing Christmas carols right away. And we keep trying to say, ‘Well, we’ve got to have a little bit of Advent first.’”
Although Advent isn’t celebrated at Central Christian Church, the Rev. Jud Wilhite, the church’s senior pastor, said he does see value in intentionally preparing for the arrival of Christmas.
This year, for example, Central Christian will be conducting a “12 Days of Christmas” program during which members will take “a spiritual journey” by choosing one Christmas activity to perform on each day of the dozen days before Christmas, Wilhite said.
“That’s our own version of just trying to get people’s hearts ready,” he said.
Finding time for reflection can be difficult during the holiday season, Wilhite said. “I’ve been a believer for many years, but I need it. It’s good for me to pause and reflect and read and think about the meaning of Christmas.”
Although not every Christian church observes Advent, Wilhite said he has noticed a trend in some churches toward formal pre-Christmas activities in recent years.
“I will tell you, there were years in the past that we just didn’t do much of anything. We just hurried right along with everybody else and it was Christmas,” he said. “So maybe four or five years ago, I think we started to get more intentional.”
In fact, carving out time for pre-Christmas reflection and preparation can be particularly vital for ministers, who are entering one of their busiest seasons of the year.
“I think for me, with the busyness of the season, Christmas can just sort of sneak up on me and sneak past me if I’m not intentional about it,” Wilhite said.
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.