It is the Advent Season Now: A Word on Tradition and Faith

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.

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God himself wants his people to keep traditions.

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.

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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

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Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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