Today we are continuing our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days in the church where we are intentionally slowing down and looking at these special days on our church calendars and asking why we celebrate or don’t celebrate certain events.
When I first started working through this series in my mind I began listing some of the church holidays and practices that I wanted to cover. Days like Passover, Hanukkah and events like Baptism and Communion seemed like really great places to start. I recall making the comment to myself that I would not be talking about Easter or Christmas. These days are well known and really, I’m going to guess that most people who come to our church are at least somewhat familiar with Christmas and Easter.
But as I was trying to figure out the last few weeks of this series, I thought maybe I too quickly dismissed Easter and Christmas. And no, I don’t plan to focus on those two holy days today, but I do want to look at the seasons around them. We are going to expand our sermon series to Rituals, Rites, and Holy Seasons. Today I want to look at both Advent and Lent.
Like me, many of you did not grow up observing Advent and Lent. Someone once asked me what I was going to give up for Lent and I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Lent? Like the stuff in your belly button? (I know a guy who can make coins appear in his belly button, but that’s a little off the subject.)
When I did start hearing about Advent and Lent in my early adult life, I often heard people say things like “Those are Catholic things” and “Those aren’t biblical.”
True, Advent and Lent started in the Catholic Church. So did pretty much every practice in the church because for the first 1500 years the Catholic Church was one of the only churches. It is also true that many of the Protestant churches discontinued these observations because they are not laid out in the Bible, so yes, they are not biblical.
But over the last few decades, more Protestant churches have come back to these holy seasons, and I hope to show you why. And to paraphrase a theologian, it is true that Advent and Lent aren’t biblical. But then again, neither is shampoo. That doesn’t make it a bad thing. Today we will look at some of the history behind these holy seasons and ask what they might mean to us and for us today.
Let’s start with Advent. Advent always begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Sometimes this date falls in November and other times in December. Sometimes Advent begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving, other times there is a week in between. This year Thanksgiving is early and Advent doesn’t start until December, but it all depends on how both Thanksgiving and Christmas fall on any given year.
We get the word Advent from the Latin adventus. Adventus simply means an arrival. The next time you are waiting on an order from Amazon, you can tell people you are waiting on an adventus from UPS. Maybe it will come on the adventus caboose? Perhaps you know someone who likes to use fancy words in the church. They might use the Greek equivalent: Parousia. So in the weeks leading up to Christmas, when someone talks about Advent, Adventus, or the Parousia, they are obviously talking about the arrival of Jesus.
I have from time to time mentioned that I like to preach from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). The RCL is set up on a three-year cycle, and includes readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and an Epistle. The RCL cycle begins with the first Sunday of Advent and I would say that the Lectionary kind of builds around Advent and Lent.
What I mean by that is that every year you will find similar themes each week during Advent. The first Sunday always focuses on a prophetic passage from the Old Testament, often from Isaiah, telling about how God has broken into the world and how the people long for God to act again. The New Testament passage is usually a reference to the Second Advent, the second coming of Christ. This coming Advent the New Testament passage is from Mark 13, which is often called “The Mini Apocalypse,” and contains such things as verse 26: “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
Week two we move to comfort. Again, we draw from Isaiah, which is a popular book that Handel used in his Messiah. Comfort ye, my people. Week two is John the Baptist Sunday as John prepares the way for the Lord. The high places are made low and the crooked path is made straight. The second Sunday in Advent is often designated at “Peace Sunday.”
The third Sunday of Advent might be my favorite. It is sometimes called “Stir it up Sunday.” This is when things start to change. Our Isaiah passage is the one that Jesus quotes in his first sermon: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, and the year of the Lord’s favor. And we find John out in front of Jesus, stirring things up.
Then on week four, we have the announcement of Jesus’s birth. Mary sings. We celebrate.
Advent is repeated every December as a way to point out that this world is not as it is supposed to be. And just as God has broken into this world and dwelled among us, God has promised to do it again. Advent is the movement from despair to hope and from hope to celebration.
Throughout Advent we perform a number of acts to build the anticipation. Some churches have a special “Hanging of the Greens” ceremony at the beginning of Advent. The Hanging of the Greens is a service where evergreen wreaths and boughs are hung around the church. We literally deck the halls with boughs of holly. Fall la la la la, la la la la. The idea is that in the midst of the darkest and coldest time of the year, there is still hope. There is hope in the everlasting life of Jesus. The greens symbolize the movement from despair to hope.
We often have an Advent wreath with candles. The greenery is again a symbol of eternal life and each candle marks the coming of Christ, the light of the world. Advent wreaths were first introduced in the 16th century in the Lutheran tradition, but it has only become popular in the US in the last 80 years or so. Each week we light an additional candle each Sunday as the light of the world grows brighter. All four candles are lit on the last Sunday before Christmas, and then the center, white candle, called the Christ candle, is lit on Christmas Eve.
Some families have incorporated the use of an Advent Calendar into their home lives. These calendars can be very simply, where you cross off a day every 24 hours, counting down the time until Christmas. Others can be quite elaborate, opening little doors to reveal yuletide scenes and sometimes little treats. All of these things are meant to draw us from despair to hope; from tragedy to promises fulfilled.
What I really like about Advent is that we are building anticipation over a period of four weeks. I think about the way children look forward to Christmas, mostly for selfish reasons. They want presents. They want candy and visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. It is no big secret that Christmas has kind of become commercialized over the last few generations. When the last drumstick drops on Thanksgiving, we switch to shopping mode. Black Friday now begins on Thanksgiving Day and we push, shove, and plow our ways to the best deals, buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have.
Advent is a way to capture some of the excitement and anticipation of Christmas that we enjoyed as children without the thin veil of consumerism. Rather than the anticipation of toys, we anticipate a world where there is no pain, no suffering, no hunger, no unmet need.
Yeah, Advent might not be laid out in the Bible, and it might be a “Catholic thing,” but I believe it is a good thing as well. And really, who doesn’t like to sing “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel?”
That was the simple one. Let’s be honest, Advent is an easier sell than Lent. Which sounds better, “Hey, let’s light some candles each week,” or “Hey, let’s give up something we really like for about 40 days.”
And if we don’t understand Lent, we shouldn’t be surprised when people outside of the church don’t get it. Some of you may remember in 2010 when a reporter on the air was questioning the black smudge on the forehead of Vice President Joe Biden. “It looks like some kind of bruise,” she said. What it was was ashes in the shape of a cross; it was Ash Wednesday.
Let’s back up a bit. Lent is a period of 40 days of fasting, moderation, and self-denial. Like Advent, there is no biblical mandate to observe Lent, but there is reason to believe that a form of Lent has been a part of the Christian tradition since the beginning. Some in the early church would fast from Good Friday until Easter morning for a period of about 40 hours. Some sources note that baptismal candidates were required to participate in a fast for 40 days before their baptism on Easter Sunday. Yet it wasn’t until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that the practice of Lent became an official part of the church.
Today, those who observe Lent do so for a period of 40 days, not including Sundays. Sundays are a “mini-Easter.” Why 40? Well, 40 is a common number in the Bible. The rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights, Elijah walked for 40 days to Mt. Horeb. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and then later led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years. And of course, Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days. And since we are called to be like Jesus, maybe we should fast for 40 days as well.
Most people do not do a complete fast for 40 days. That’s just not healthy. It has been a tradition to only eat one meal a day, or to fast from certain foods, like meat, during Lent. Meat is a luxury in some communities, and denying yourself that luxury is an act of solidarity with our God who humbly took on the form of a human in Jesus.
Different traditions measure the 40 days of Lent, well, differently. The most common way is to count 40 days backwards from Easter, again, not counting Sundays. And since Easter always comes on a Sunday, Lent always begins on a Wednesday. That day is called “Ash Wednesday.”
The Hebrew tradition lifts up a number of external symbols of repentance, such as sackcloth and ashes. Sackcloth is a rough material that was likely made out of coarse goat hair; you will sometimes hear a sackcloth garment referred to as a hairshirt. It’s like that really itchy sweater that your grandmother made you when you were a kid, times 10. Ashes are ashes, and they were often dumped over a person’s head.
The idea behind wearing sackcloth and putting ashes on your head is that you are taking your internal feelings and putting them on display. I’m uncomfortable. I’m dirty. I need to repent.
Ashes and sackcloth were used when someone needed to repent of a personal sin, when they were mourning the loss of a loved one, and mourning a national disaster. There are really good examples found in Esther 4, Daniel 9, 1 Samuel 13, and Jeremiah 6:26, which says, “Put on sackcloth, my people, and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”
I know, this stuff sounds fun, but that’s not really the point. One of the pushbacks that I hear about Lent is that this is an attempt to earn God’s grace. And if that is how someone presents Lent to you, I don’t think that they understand Lent. Jesus Christ is sufficient and his grace does abound. We don’t put on sackcloth and ashes so that God will give us grace. We do this because God has given us grace.
The idea is to begin the period of Lent with mourning and self-denial, but to move toward celebration and new life. These holy days and seasons are about living out and living into God’s promises.
Let’s just look at a couple of Lenten practices real quickly. First, Ash Wednesday is the official beginning of Lent where some traditions smear ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of repentance. Traditionally, these ashes are supposed to come from the previous year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds. But come on, who has that kind of storage? Since people often give up something they like to eat on Ash Wednesday, they often gorge on that item the day before. That day goes by several names, including Shrove Tuesday, which means “repentance,” Pancake Tuesday (no kidding), and Fat Tuesday, which me may know better in the French, which is Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is the day of preparation for Lent. Eat your sweets while you can!
My pushback on some of the practices of Lent is that we sometimes make it too public. Look at Matthew 6:16-18, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
I’ve never put ashes on my forehead, in part because Jesus says that when we fast we are to wash our face. This may be a direct critique of people dumping ashes on their heads when they fast. This is supposed to be done in private, and it is between you and God.
But also notice that Jesus says, “When you fast…,” and he says it twice in these three verses. The Bible might not directly tell us that we need to fast for a period of 40 days before Easter, but it does seem like Jesus expects us to fast.
I’m not an expert of fasting and I think that we in the modern, western world just don’t understand the whole idea of self-denial. It isn’t a way to gain God’s graces or to assure God’s blessing. This is an act of devotion. Like reading your Bible or devotional readings, or praying, fasting is meant to be a way to connect with God.
So when we come to Lent again in a few months, I encourage you to give something up. Give up social media, give up sugar. Give up gossip, give away some more money. The idea is that Jesus gave up everything for us, what can we give up for him?
Advent and Lent are seasons of the church that are moving us, pulling us, drawing us from something toward something. We move from despair to hope. We move from self-denial to abundance. We move from repentance to new life.