I grew up in a traditional religious environment. I was raised with a thorough background in Sunday school and relatively frequent church attendance. Baptized as an infant and confirmed as a teen, I experienced a typical twentieth century American protestant church. Something that simply never clicked for me however were the seasons and the rituals of the weekly orders of service. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention whenever that was explained to me, or else they skipped that lesson during catechism class? Nonetheless, I managed to arrive into adulthood with a rather cynical view of the benefits of the liturgy. Form and ritual, colors and vestments, readings and creeds; all of it seemed mysterious and foreign to me and I rejected it out of hand.
I embraced a faith that sounded very similar to that of my upbringing, but dressed down in blue jeans. My new religious experience was rooted in a relationship and distrustful of religious symbolism. I found this relaxed and informal perspective on church freeing and liberating. I was no longer required to pray on demand rote prayers written by another’s pen. I only prayed when I chose to communicate with God and in words from my own heart alone. I never gave any thought to the system undergirding the structure of my religion. In fact I came to believe that structure was something to treat with disdain and avoid as if the very fact that there was order in the church negated its validity. Isn’t it curious how we tend to wax extreme?
I have since come to understand that we are all influenced by liturgy; the difference really is whether it is rooted in a formal historical tradition or an informal modern environment. Liturgy actually means a ritual or form of public worship. Rhythms and patterns of worship ebb and flow around the calendar and we celebrate seasons and festivals and high holy days. We have just entered one of the most sacred seasons in the liturgical calendar – Advent. Again, having never understood the significance of the system, I was intrigued to learn that Advent not only reflects upon the prophetic anticipation of the coming of Jesus to earth as a baby, but it also looks ahead to the second coming of Christ when he will return to rule and reign as King of Kings.
During the Advent season, in a liturgical church one might very probably experience the lighting of Advent candles on a wreath. On four consecutive Sundays preceding Christmas, worship would include the lighting of one of the four candles, each one representing a unique aspect of Christmas. On the first Sunday in Advent someone will read scripture from the Old Testament prophet that announces the promise of the coming Christ child. So this first candle is lit as a symbol of hope for that which is yet to come.
The second Sunday when the second candle is lit, scripture may be read reflecting on the ministry of John the Baptist as he instructed everyone to prepare for the savior’s birth. This week takes us farther along the journey of Advent as a symbol of peace, peace that is found when we are ready to receive the Christ child. On the following Sunday, the third candle is lit and scripture may be read reflecting on the Good News of the coming savior, also looking ahead to the Good News of the second coming. This candle symbolizes joy for all who embrace the good news find joy unspeakable! The fourth and final Sunday in Advent finds us ready to celebrate the fullness of the blessed event. Immanuel has come – God with us and the living word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is love incarnate – the final symbol glowing as we light the fourth Advent candle.
As we enter this season of Advent, perhaps you participate in a liturgy like I have described here, or perhaps like me you have long ago laid aside these rituals having lost connection with their meaning. Perhaps together we can spend some time in the weeks leading up to Christmas to prepare our hearts and anticipate His arrival a fresh and anew. Hope. Peace. Joy. Love.