Editor’s note: The author of this series is from Hong Kong, and is an author and teacher who serves the mainland Chinese church. Written while she was studying and serving in the United States, it offers a thorough and useful explanation of Advent. It is a good resource for helping Chinese friends, seekers, and young Christians understand many of traditional meanings and symbols they encounter at Christmas, and can help connect them to the historic global church. For other articles in this series on advent, please see the following: Origins & History, Symbolism, and Tools for Advent at Home.
For some of you in this congregation, Advent celebration might not be foreign at all, but it might be celebrated differently in the church you used to go to. For others, you feel very uncomfortable with the lighting of the candles in a worship service either because it reminds you of Roman Catholicism or because the Bible never commands us to celebrate Advent or Christmas. Yet for still some others, maybe you have just recently come to appreciate this grace-driven, covenant-community-centered faith and the liturgical worship style of this church, and you are very eager to embrace the idea of church traditions and therefore the celebration of Advent, but you do not know how to start. In this article, I plan briefly to explain what Advent is, why we celebrate Advent the way we do in this church, what the benefits and pitfalls such tradition might involve, and how we may endeavor to avoid the pitfalls and maximize the benefits in our community and families.
To be sure, the Bible never commands us to celebrate Advent or Christmas. Yet the celebration of Advent has a long tradition in church history. Today, both the Eastern and the Western churches have Advent included on their liturgical calendars. If you are like me, growing up in a non-denominational or anti-traditionalist church, you will most likely ask why we, Protestants, should care about such extra-biblical church traditions. After all, was it not precisely such man-made traditions that the Reformers fought so hard to remove from the church?
To answer this question, we must first realize that tradition is an inevitable part of any community, including the church. Even the anti-traditionalists have their own church traditions, though they may deny it. Secondly, to deny the positive values of any church tradition is to deny the work of the Holy Spirit throughout church history. The church did from our generation; we are, after all, partakers of the same inheritance of all saints (Col 1:12). A child of God who rejects all church traditions is not only arrogant and dishonest, but also prone to err.
The Bible teaches that we are “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3, emphasis added). This means that if any church today believes they are diligently preserving the purity of the faith, they ought to have the humility to acknowledge that the same Holy Spirit who inaugurated the church at Pentecost has been guiding all the faithful saints throughout history to fight the same fight. If a church loses sight of this, it is more likely to dismiss much of the wisdom and fruit the church has gained in history. No church today needs to readdress the old issues anew or to reinvent the wheel each time.
Therefore, the problem lies not in having a tradition, but in whether that tradition is, first, grounded in Scripture, and second, whether one understands his or her tradition and knows the proper place and function of tradition with respect to the authority of scripture. Is tradition dangerous? My answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Yet there is danger in all good things. If there is anything that sinners are good at, it is our ability to turn God’s good blessings into idols. Any good tradition, when misused, can be just as harmful!
Perhaps it might be safe to say that most church traditions started out with good intentions and perhaps under necessary circumstances, too. Very often, among true believers, there always exists a form of piety at the popular level. Piety, either personal or corporate, often requires outward, visible forms of expression, which if widely accepted by a community soon become a tradition of that community. Sometimes, a tradition is consciously created because the church is counter-acting an unbiblical culture, while at other times, a tradition is formed rather gradually and less purposefully.
A living tradition is often also an evolving one. As history moves on, new social-cultural situations will usually replace the old. New generations, while keeping the old tradition, often tend to add new elements into it. Unless we intentionally maintain the continuity of the tradition by constantly reminding ourselves and our offspring of the original purpose and meaning of the tradition and thus putting a parameter to this process of evolution, we cannot prevent ourselves from falling into the pitfalls of traditionalism.
To preserve the original good intention and purpose of a tradition requires diligence and understanding. Understanding requires both knowledge of the meaning of the tradition and the knowledge of the biblical teaching. Embedded in any tradition is always rich symbolism and ritual. Yet they function only as a tool. What is important is the meaning behind these visible and tangible aspects of a tradition.
In the book of Moses, we learn that God explicitly commanded that certain things be kept by Israel as a tradition for generations to come. All of the things involved sophisticated symbolism and rituals. Yet God explicitly added at the end of his instructions, “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him…” (Exodus 12:26, 13:14; Deuteronomy 6:20). The meaning behind the tradition is what God wanted Israel to maintain. So, when asked about why you observe certain traditions and you find yourself answering, “It has historically been done this way” or “that is the church’s tradition,” you are in danger.
When the meaning behind a tradition is lost, keeping a tradition means no more than observing futile rituals and thus making it a stumbling block to your faith. Once the true meaning of a tradition is lost, one is most likely to ask such questions as “Our fathers worshiped” in such and such place, “but you say” such and such is the place people ought to worship (see John 4: 20). Jesus’ answer to the Samaritan woman – that true worship is in spirit and truth – establishes the principle that the form is only secondary to the substance. When God’s people lost sight of the real meaning behind those rituals, God did not hesitate to let them know that he detested their meaningless observances (1 Sam 15:22; Mal 2:3).
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I do find it necessary to mention something. The need to address the tendency of going to the other extreme is perhaps greater for this church than defending the liturgical tradition. If you are one of those who came from a spontaneous worship style church or from a church that knows no traditions whatsoever, but you came to appreciate the order, soberness, solemnity of liturgical worship service of this church, there could well be a temptation that you simply want to embrace everything traditional and liturgical. It is very important to note that unlike other liturgical elements such as the sacraments, Advent celebration is not commanded in the Bible. It is a tool, a mean – a useful one but nonetheless – to remind us of the true meaning of the season. Using Frame’s terminology here, despite its ceremonial appearance (the lightening of the candles etc.), it is a merely mode, a vehicle for biblically based teaching, and thus must be treated no more than so.
One must also note that this church does not retain all church traditions without discretions. We do not observe, for example, Annunciation, Assumption, Immaculate Conception, Lent, Pentecost in our church liturgical calendar. The reason for each of them requires perhaps separate discussions. But on Advent, we must know that there is nonetheless some biblical grounds for including it as a teaching tool. To be sure, although the celebration of Advent (or Christmas for that matter) is never taught in Scripture, the Advent of Christ himself is. Since the doctrine of advent is in the Bible, any time of year is appropriate for its teaching in the church. And I would argue, what time is more appropriate than this time of the year?
Since the ceremonial parts of celebrating Advent are extra-biblical, are there not dangers if we include them in church worship? My answer is “Yes, definitely!” Yet there are dangers in all liturgical traditions, even the most biblical ones, as we learn from the lessons that the Pharisees taught us. As we have discussed above, there are, in fact, dangers in all church traditions, including the “me-and-my-Bible-only” traditions. Yet, whether we will let such a celebration be a blessing or a snare for us and our children depends on how we treat and preserve this tradition. For Advent celebration to serve its proper function, it must at the same time become a tradition for believers’ homes and for the church community as a whole. It is through the family, and the conscious joint-effort of the entire covenant community that the true meaning behind the symbolism of Advent is to be properly and effectively observed and passed on.
Through Advent celebrations, we have the opportunity to create a Christ-centered culture in the church, an alternative culture to counteract the values and spirit of the secular world. Younger children might be slow to understand the more complex theological concepts, but they are very quick on picking up signals from their culture. If we can properly bear in mind the extra-biblical nature of the tradition and ceremony-like celebrations, we may boldly and creatively build an alternative culture for both ourselves and for the world to see.