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Advent - Yes! Lent - No.

As soon as Halloween was over (and probably a little before it was over) we started to see Christmas decorations going up. Folks began to make justifications for why they’re already listening to Christmas music. In years past, however, it wasn’t until the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade when Santa Claus would make his first appearance of the year. This was the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season. This is still somewhat observed in American culture by the recreation of Thunderdome in stores during the early morning hours of Black Friday. But retailers continue to push the shopping for Christmas earlier and earlier. This is because Christmas is big business. Most retailers depend on the shopping that occurs during the Christmas season in order to make their annual sales projections.

What is lost in all this build up to marketing of Christmas? Well, for starters, Christmas can be lost. All the stuff of celebrating Christmas begins to overshadow the actual holiday of Christmas. Kids think about Christmas, and their first thought is of toys and gifts instead of remembering the birth of Jesus Christ. So, how do we recover this? One option is to just consider Christmas a secular event and adopt a biblical church calendar. What is a biblical church calendar? It is marking church time the same way that the Scriptures do, in 52 seven day segments. Every Lord’s Day is a holiday (i.e. a holy day). There is merit to this. But is it throwing the baby out with the bath water?

For many Christians, the church liturgical calendar combats this commercialization of the Holidays. The four week season of Advent is meant to call the church to remember the Christ-child in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Holidays. Advent is a time of preparation. It rehearses much of the story of the birth narrative and calls us to remember the reason for Jesus’ advent. It calls us to remember that there will be another advent, when Christ returns in triumphant glory to consummate the Kingdom of God.

And yet, Hughes Old notes, “Discontinuing the penitential seasons of preparation for Christmas and Easter was one of the first reforms of Reformed Protestantism.”[1] These seasons had been marked by “legalistic asceticism which [was] far removed from Christian piety.” The Reformers realized that these practices can be counter-productive to our sanctification by trapping us in ritual instead of actually worshiping the Risen Christ.

So, what is the answer? I think we need to observe that there is Christian liberty in how we approach the various holidays, especially the Christmas season. Particularly with our children, I find that a light observance of Advent is beneficial. It acknowledges that even if only culturally, there is something different about this time of year. So it helps re-orient their eyes (and ours) to Jesus Christ, the promised King, when so much of the world is trying to catch their eyes with the latest gizmo. We will utilize Advent devotionals to encourage you to read the whole of your Bible in light of the coming (and second coming) of Christ. We use an Advent candle before worship during Advent. But if you’ll notice, we do this before the Call to Worship. This is because lighting candles is not part of how the Lord instructed us to worship him on the Lord’s Day. We don’t use the colors of a liturgical calendar in decorating our sanctuary. But we do put up wreaths and other decorations for the very important theological reason that it looks nice.

In the same vein, however, this is also why we don’t observe Lent during the lead-up to Easter. Easter is not the commercial holiday that Christmas has become. There just aren’t the cultural pressures to completely abandon all reference to the resurrected Christ, because culturally Easter just isn’t that big of a deal. This gives the church the freedom to dominate the narrative around Easter. And yet, Lent has become a very popular event on the liturgical calendar for evangelicals. Many will broadcast on social media what it is that they are giving up for Lent. The Lenten fast has become a very public expression of one’s personal piety. It is more an exercise of one’s self determination and flagellation. Fasting in this way does not give one the actual benefit of fasting. Instead it runs the risk of detracting from Christ’s triumphant victory over death and the grave by putting the emphasis on your sacrifice.

So, in our desire to live in light of the finished work of Christ, we exercise liberty and wisdom with respect to the Holidays. I acknowledge that not all will agree with where I place the emphasis in this practice. Some will find it too permissive. Others will find it too restrictive. And I’m sure some will just find it incoherent. I’m okay with that. But within proper parameters we will seek to utilize the benefits of Advent. And for many of the same reasons we will find most observances of Lent to be less than helpful. So, Advent – yes. Lent – no.

[1] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, vol. 5, pp. 60-61.

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