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.
1. Celebrating Advent at home and in the covenant community
In recent decades, more and more Protestants in America have begun to rediscover the tradition of Advent celebration. The reason, I suspect, might have to do with Christians’ reactions against the secularization of American culture. As a foreign student studying the very subject matter of religion and culture, I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my views on this.
It is important for us to realize that each time we Christians endeavor to influence or to transform the culture around us, we must at the same time be aware of the danger of a reverse influence. If a soldier is to fight a battle, he is at least required to be fully armed. If there is a “culture war” to be fought, should we not first create an alternative culture within our own community? But to do so, we must have a deeper understanding of who we are in Christ and what kind of holy community we need to become that can be light to the world.
A lot of times, most of the American culture warriors’ zeal to win the culture largely outweighs their knowledge and wisdom. It is a spiritual warfare that we are engaging in; we are not supposed to use the weapons of the world, but weapons of the Spirit, granted in biblical knowledge and wisdom. In other words, immersing ourselves in the depth and richness of the Bible is a pre-requisite for any culture war agendas.
As the post-Constantinian church battled with the pagan culture, we see both success and failure. Today, praise to the Lord, most people in the world do recognize December 25 as a day to celebrate Christ’s birth. The tradition of celebrating the birth of Mithras is pretty much unknown any more. However, is it not also true that various pagan practices and traditions had also gradually crept into the Catholic church since the 4th century, leading eventually to the purification of the church by the Reformers?
Today in America, many zealous evangelical culture-warriors fight hard to put the Ten Commandments or Christmas crèches in public places, or they campaign against the use of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in department stores. Yet how many of them are able to even recite the Ten Commandments correctly, let alone keep them? And how many of them celebrate Christmas with the same diligence they keep secular values and cultural practices out of their homes?
In China, most commercial stores these days will put up “Merry Christmas” signs during this time of the year. As far as I know, no Chinese Christian ever campaigned for such a thing to happen. Why would the secular world care to entertain a Christian holiday? I believe it is partly because many Christian churches in China have already developed a convention/tradition of making Christmas a time for holding evangelistic meetings. Many unbelievers, either by invitation or through word of mouth or out of their own curiosity, come to church on Christmas Eve to find out what Christmas is all about. The commercial world cares to put up something Christian because they have sensed that there is an alternative culture in that society, which is large enough for them to entertain for commercial purposes.
So shall we also consider how we may create an alternative culture in this Advent season – a culture that centers on Christ and his redemption, a culture to surprise the world?
2. Community and individuals
Finally, to create an alternative culture, we as a covenant community should develop a Christ-centered Advent celebration collectively. Each community group should do something together to focus on the Advent theme. I do not mean feasting and having the fun during the Advent season, but rather making a conscious effort to focus on Christ and God’s covenantal love.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Since each community group generally has its own needs, or knows about specific needs outside of their community group, the Advent season is usually the best time to address those needs. Children can be asked to hang prayer cards for those needs on their Jesse Tree at home when they come to learn about them.
Perhaps the church could also think of making it a tradition to publish something on the theme of Advent each year during this time. We could invite members of the church to share how they celebrate Advent and exchange ideas, or invite someone to give testimonies related to Advent. I know that apart from reading scripture passages, some families in our congregation use the Advent season to teach their children to memorize good hymns – hymns of Advent, Christmas, or the life and work of Christ, etc. Perhaps we could ask them to share something about hymns with the church. We have some of the best experts in English literature in our [particular congregation]. Perhaps we could ask them to share with us what good poetry or literature they would recommend for Advent readings. If the church grows and we have more members from other countries in the world, we could invite them to share how Christmas is celebrated in their home countries.
Our community also has many single adults. Many single Christians complain that they feel out of place in their church. Since most of the suggestions above are geared toward families, I hope I do not give the singles an impression that Advent celebration does not concern them. Of course, being part of a community group or helping out with the church’s Advent preparation are some of the ways for singles to celebrate Advent. But, being a single myself and in a foreign country alone, I do find ways to enjoy the Advent season. As some of you know, I collect sermons. I usually like to choose some topics that fit the Advent theme to listen to during this season. They do not have to be Advent or Christmas sermons. They can be sermons about finding Christ in the Old Testament, about redemption and consummation, or even about the extension of Christ’s kingdom on earth, i.e., missions. It is also the time I hear from mission ministries and give to mission organizations or write to missionaries whom I know. I believe all of the singles could easily do something along these lines by themselves.
3. To counter the culture of consumerism, secularism, Hollywood…
Today we are in a society where Advent has become the anticipation of the arrival of Christmas gifts; the spirit of Christmas promoted by Hollywood is about family reunion, universal love, indiscriminate peace, or humanistic goodwill that have nothing to do with Christ and redemption; the secularists endeavor to take Christ out of the holiday season and the Supreme Court has ruled that Christmas crèches can only be placed in public places if accompanied by statues of Santa Clause, etc. How do we react to such a culture?
Since [I have] no experience of raising children myself, I am only speaking at the principle level here. First, despite many parents’ good intentions to keep secular values out of their home, they often turn their home into a Garden of Eden without a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is not a wise thing to do. While it is probably not a good idea for Christian parents to tell their children that Santa left the gifts for them or to help them to write letters to Santa, it is neither possible nor necessary to ban Santa Clause or all the secular Christmas symbols from your homes. The most important thing is the children know why people are crazy about Santa and what is wrong with that. Many Christian parents worry that once their children leave for college, they will abandon their faith. On this matter, I am very inspired by how Os Guinness taught his son. As a cultural critic himself, Os Guinness told us that when his son was young, he often played a game with him by asking him to explain the lies behind the commercials. If his son could give a good answer, he would give him a quarter. He said his son eventually got so good at it that he had to call the game off.
So, one thing both parents and older children could do in the Advent season is discuss the symbolism and values behind secular celebrations, or the hidden messages of Hollywood movies, instead of avoiding or banning them. This not only facilitates quality communication between parents and children, but it is a good apologetic way to celebrate Advent and Christmas. Of course, the parents themselves must be sensitive and critical of the surrounding culture first. Os Guinness’s son could do that because he learned it from his father. Many Christians’ objections to secular cultural values remain at the level of immorality alone. But the secular world has an entirely different world-and-life view. It permeates all areas. We cannot escape the world. For children to stand firm in their faith, they need to know not only what is right, but also what is not right and why.
On the custom of buying and wanting gifts, I must say gift giving and receiving should be a beautiful thing. The question is how can we counteract the culture of materialism. What we discuss above is a positive way to redirect our focus on Christ, but there might be times when we need to consciously act defensively. I am from a community where the first generation American-dream-seekers come to this country with a minimum of material possessions. They work hard and most of their dreams have come true, but the problem is that most of them do not want their children be deprived of the same material enjoyments that they do not have. Many now have realized that they have created a generation that is both egocentric and incapable of handling hardship.
Now Christians in that community begin to advocate, “Never let your children live better than you!” Perhaps, this is a negative way to deal with the problem. The real issue is not in the possession of materials, but in the desire of the heart. A more positive way is perhaps to encourage the children to learn to direct their attention to the needs of others and encourage them to give as they receive. A friend of mine would often encourage his two boys to choose either the most favorite gifts they have received to give away, or some gifts that they know someone else would probably like to have. When the children learn to focus on the needs of others, you will be amazed how generous they can be.
Finally, for anything we teach our children to do, we must be the first to act upon it. That way, Advent is not only for the kids, but it is a culture we are creating as a whole!