Do you have any Christmas traditions? Did your family have them when you were growing up? What were they? Take a moment to think about them. Are your memories of them fond? I bet you have more traditions then you think. Sometimes that which is normal to us becomes invisible.
I will give you one example from my own life. If you are a part of the Van Dyke family, then Christmas day had a very important tradition. It actually started the night before. My brothers and I would all sleep in the same room. We weren’t allowed to exit that room until the next day when we heard Christmas music – It always seemed to be Bing Crosby. When the music started playing, we would run down the hall towards the kitchen – it became a full contact sport as we got older and older- and there in the kitchen we would find glasses of orange juice. We would race to drink the glasses of orange juice and sit down. The first one finished and seated was the victor and the first to get to open a gift. No one quite knows how this tradition got started. It proceeded my brothers and me. And yet we all continue it with our own children to this day. You can say that in a weird and funny way, it marks us as a family.
The Christmas season is full of opportunities to make traditions, renew old ones, or borrow from others.
These traditions can be really important markers in our life. They can mark us as a family, a culture, or even as Christians. Within the church, these traditions have a special name – liturgy. A liturgy refers to the structure and ritual of a church service with a purpose to point us and others to God. Liturgies are the structures we use to formalize our worship. They are structures that are meant to teach us something, express something to others, and lead us into deeper worship. Some churches are more “liturgical” than others. Some denominations and churches have highly structured ways of worship. If you grew up in a highly structured church or “high” church, as it is sometimes called, then you will know what I am talking about. You may even balk at my mentioning them because all that form and structure stifled your worship.
But here is the problem. As James K.A. Smith talks frequently about, the problem is not in the form, structure, or liturgies themselves. The problem is how we use them.
Think about the Christmas traditions that we just talked about. I don’t think many of us would say that those rituals or traditions have stifled Christmas. Just the opposite. Those traditions marked us. They give us an identity as a family, part of an ongoing story. They form and inform our worship. As Paul David Tripp says, “worship is an identity before it is an activity.” We are made to worship, and we will worship something, and we will create structures for our worship, whether we know it or not.
Which brings me to my ultimate point: Advent. We are in the middle of this Advent season. You may or may not have noticed the candles upfront of the church, the special prayer, and the lighting of those candles these past two Sundays, but those are a part of the way we, as a church, recognize that we are in the Advent season. Advent means coming. Advent is the season leading up to Christmas. It starts 4 weeks before Christmas, so we already in the 2nd week of Advent.
Each week is marked by a different word – Hope, Love, Joy, Peace – or Bible reading. There have been more traditional ways of celebrating Advent with specific Bible readings, an Advent wreath, etc. Advent is a liturgy/tradition of the church and hopefully will be a liturgy in your family and your life.
Advent is a season of looking back- of remembering what God has done. Advent is about placing ourselves, as a community and family, in that part of history that looked towards the coming of Jesus, not back at it. It’s about connecting to what is being sung when we hear Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. Ponder these words from that great hymn
Come thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Have you ever been to a jewelry store? If you have you know that they always display the diamonds on black velvet. They do that so that the brilliance and beauty of that diamond can be seen in its entirety. Advent is like that. It is about remembering the black velvet of Ephesians 2:1-3 (you were dead in your sins and trespasses…) so the diamond of Ephesians 2:4-10 (But God, being rich in mercy…) can shine bright.
That is Advent. A season of remembering the bad news so we can fully appreciate the glad tidings of great joy. We need Christmas. We need to celebrate better and with more joy than the world does. But we shouldn’t rush to the 25th without taking some time to remember what we are celebrating and why we are celebrating it. Advent is one of those liturgies, traditions, rituals, whatever word you like, that helps us see the weight.