Here are the first four installments in my bulletin blurb series explaining the worship practices of the Lutheran church. I'll try to post the individual ones as they are finished. Up next will be the Divine Service. Pictured above is an Advent wreath that we saw suspended in mid air at an Episcopal cathedral in New York City. I know it's a little late for the Christmas season, but I thought I'd get this up while there are still 25 minutes left in Christmas. Epiphany begins tomorrow. I hope you enjoyed your 12 days!
Why On Earth Do We Do That?
What is Advent, and why do we celebrate it (part one)?
Advent is a part of the Christian Year, a pattern of seasons which cycle annually to highlight different themes and events from the life of Christ. It was developed as a method of teaching the faith to believers who lived before literacy was common or people could own Bibles. The church year follows the story of waiting for the Messiah to come, the birth of Jesus, His baptism, temptation, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return as King.
Did you know that this cycle follows the second article of the creed? Rotating through the major events of Christ’s life annually keeps the entire story always present in the church. No matter what else comes along to distract our attention, the change of seasons always brings us back to remember who Jesus is and what He has done for us. Following this pattern punctuates time with our contemplation of the life of Christ so that remembering and proclaiming the Good News becomes a part of the rhythm of our lives. This is a part of how the church catechizes, or teaches, in her mission to make disciples.
Even though Bibles and literacy are common today, we maintain the celebration of the Christian year because it serves as an anchor to direct our focus in worship towards Christ that we might be built up in faith and continue to emphasize what is most important. Next week, we’ll talk more about Advent and the role it plays in the church year. Remember, if it’s not about the Christ, it isn’t Christian!
What is Advent, and why do we celebrate it (part two)?
Advent is the part of the church year at the beginning of the cycle. In this season that leads up to the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we remember the thousands of years that Old Testament believers were waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Messiah. It is often considered a penitential season, similar to Lent, because during this time we prepare our hearts for the celebration of Christmas, symbolically re-enacting the anticipation of Christ’s first coming, or His “Advent,” (from the Latin “adventus,” meaning arrival). However, like the saints of old who waited for the first coming of Christ, we too are waiting for our Savior, because He has promised to return. Jesus is the world’s salvation, but that salvation is not fully experienced until we are with Him in paradise. In the meantime, believers can draw hope from looking to the day to come when Christ returns to judge the earth. So there is a two-fold emphasis on waiting for Jesus during this season. Let us set our hearts on the joy that is yet to revealed as we remember that though toil and trouble weigh on our hearts, God has not forgotten us, and after a little while we shall be with Him forever.
Nobody knows exactly when Christ shall return, and the church waits with eager anticipation year round, but we emphasize this waiting four weeks out of the year to remind ourselves that just as God was faithful to his Word to send a Redeemer, so too He will be faithful to take those whom He has redeemed to our eternal home. Let us remember the words of Augustine who said, “When [Scripture] tells us to watch for the last day, every one should think of as concerning his own last day; lest haply when you judge or think the last day of the world to be far distant, you slumber with regard to your own last day.” We shall indeed be with Jesus soon. Amen, come Lord Jesus.
Why do we have a special wreath with colored candles out in December?
There is a wreath positioned horizontally on a stand that has 3 blue or purple candles, one pink candle, and eventually, a large white candle in the center off to the side of the altar in our sanctuary this month. This is known as the “advent wreath.” It is a special device we use to mark our progress through the Advent season, one candle for each week in Advent.
What is the significance of the colors? Purple is the traditional color for Advent because, like Lent, it is a penitential season. However, Lent and Advent are not penitential in the same way: Lent is preparation for Good Friday and the cross, but in Advent we prepare for a much less somber event, the birth of Christ. In order to distinguish this, it has become common in recent years for Advent to adopt the color blue in place of purple. The third Sunday of Advent is marked by the pink candle. This candle marks the half-way point through Advent. Penitential seasons have a tradition of using a “half-time,” or taking the middle Sunday as an opportunity for rejoicing and respite amidst the drab undertones that tend to accompany such seasons. This Sunday is known as Gaudate, or Rejoice! Sunday, because of the words we begin the service with: Rejoice in the Lord always! Even as we await His coming, we rejoice in it’s certainty. There is one more candle that we will add to the wreathe, in the center, on December 24th.
Candles, candles, everywhere! Why do we light so many candles on Christmas eve?
Because Jesus Christ is the light of the world. With the birth of Jesus, “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Thus sang Zechariah in Luke 1:68-79. In the first chapter of John we read that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
We light candles all over the place to symbolize Christ. The suspended candle in a red case is the “eternity candle,” which stands for the presence of Christ among his church (and thus it is always lit). The two candles on the altar that are lit every Sunday represent the two natures of Christ, that he is both fully human and fully divine. In this service, we add a fifth candle, the white “Christ candle” to the middle of the Advent wreath, represents the end of the Advent season with the Nativity. Lastly, at the end of our candlelight service, we take the light from the Christ candle and we begin to all light our own individual candles. This is a picture of the Gospel going out into the world as we, like the shepherds, bear witness to the light we have seen and give to others this joyful proclamation as freely as we have received it.