Saturday, November 30, 2013

Solus Christus: Why Advent?

“The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity—hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory—because at the Father’s will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later He might hang on a cross.” ~ J. I. Packer, Knowing God

The Advent season starts tomorrow, and over the next few weeks, I will post a short Scripture reading and devotional each day. But, before that, we must ask ourselves, “Why do I want to observe Advent? What is its purpose?” Since it wasn’t commanded by Christ and taught to us by His apostles, we can’t insist that anyone observe the Advent season. If someone tries to convince you that you must observe Advent because you are a Christian, ask them where that is commanded in Scripture, and then humbly remind them that our Lord Himself taught us not to teach “as doctrines the commandments of men.” So, if Advent isn’t a commanded season of preparation, why would I spend time writing Advent devotionals—a tool to use in the observation of Advent? Well, we’ll get to that in a moment.

First, it would be helpful to talk briefly about the history of Advent. Why did it arise as a Church tradition in the first place? When the Church emerged from almost three centuries of persecution, a Church year—a cycle of regularly occurring annual Christian festivals—began to form. Now, a religious year wasn’t a new idea in the fourth century, for there was a religious year in Old Testament worship, and even several pagan religions observed a religious year. However, the distinctiveness of the Church year is that it centers on a particular person and His Work, i.e. Jesus Christ and His work of redemption. This focus on Christ and His work for annual Christian festivals naturally formed three primary festivals: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. These festivals center our attention on the three major events of the Christian gospel: Christ’s incarnation, His death and resurrection, and His outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Church. The great Church historian, Philip Schaff, states concerning this cycle, “The church year is, so to speak, a chronological confession of faith; a moving panorama of the great events of salvation; a dramatic exhibition of the gospel for the Christian people.

Christmas and Advent were comparatively late additions to the Church calendar with Easter and Pentecost developing early in the second century, Christmas developing in the fourth, and Advent near the end of the sixth century. It was inevitable that Christmas be added to the Church year, for it celebrates the groundwork for all other festivals—the coming of Christ. John Chrysostom (bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century) defended the addition of Christmas to the Church calendar by reminding his congregation that “without the birth of Christ there were also no baptism, passion, resurrection, or ascension and no outpouring of the Holy Spirit….” That is, without a celebration of Christ’s birth there is no foundation for the celebration of Easter, Pentecost, or any other festival based on His work in this world. By the end of the sixth century, seasons of preparation for these key celebrations had been added, and thus Advent became a traditional part of the Church year. It was designed to anticipate and prepare the Church for the celebration of Christ’s birth by reminding us of the yearning for the Messiah in the long ages before His incarnation, of our hope of redemption in Him alone, of our continual need of Him, and of our future hope in His second coming. It is the anticipation and preparation for our celebration of the coming of the “hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory,” which came through Christ alone.

“How long is the Advent season?” might be a question on your mind. Well, the Advent season begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which means it’s a season that varies in length depending on day on which Christmas falls. It can be as short as 22 days (if Christmas falls on a Monday) or as long as 28 days (if Christmas falls on a Sunday).

But, we need to get back to the original question, "Why observe Advent?" Why anticipate and prepare for a celebration, even one as important as Christmas? Well, I can’t tell you why you should observe Advent because it’s not a God-given command, and therefore neither I nor anyone else can demand you observe Advent as if it were a command. Rather, I’m going to tell you why I observe Advent, and then leave your reasons between you and the Lord.

Now, let’s be honest, most believers get caught up in the consumerism and materialism of the Christmas season just like the rest of our culture. I’m no exception to that statement. During this season I find myself getting frustrated by our culture’s views on Christmas, mostly because I find those views affecting me just as much as others, and I don’t like that. At times I’ve been called a “Christmas scrooge” because I’m pretty cynical about Christmas traditions and generally don’t have much “Christmas spirit.” Therefore, I need to have my cynical, wayward heart drawn away from the consumerism and materialism of cultural Christmas and back towards Jesus and the glorious truth of His incarnation in this world. That’s why I need to observe Advent and perhaps why it might be helpful for you as well.

Observing Advent doesn’t have some special spiritual power, and the Advent Sundays are no more holy than any other Lord’s Day in the rest of the year. What it does do is give me a daily pause and reminder of what this time of year means to the Christian faith and why we celebrate the birth of Christ in the first place. It provides me with a much-needed corrective for everything else I hear and see from the world during the Christmas season. In this sense, it helps me reset myself from anticipating presents, stockings, decorations, or Christmas traditions, and it focuses me back on celebrating the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Observing Advent gets my mind back on the fact that our Lord has come, that He has accomplished complete redemption for His people, and that He is coming again one day to usher in the new heavens and new earth. That’s why I like observing Advent and why I think it might be helpful for you as well. If you find that reason compelling or perhaps it brings to your mind another good reason for you to observe Advent, then come back each day and keep reading.

A few words need to be said about the title of this post (and the subsequent posts). From where did I get “Solus Christus”? “Sola” is the Latin word for “alone” or “only,” and during the Reformation, five Latin sola-statements (commonly called the “Five Solas”) emerged. These were intended to summarize the Reformers’ basic theological principles and distinctions from Roman Catholic theology. The Five Solas are sola fide (“by faith alone”), sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), sola gratia (“by grace alone”), soli deo gloria (“glory to God alone”), and, finally, solus Christus (“through Christ alone”). Since Advent focuses our hearts and minds on the coming of Christ and the hope of redemption through Him alone, I thought it a fitting title for a set of Advent meditations.

In the following days leading up to Christmas, you will find a daily Scripture reading and some reflection (from a Reformed perspective) on what it tells us about the incarnation of Jesus and His glorious work of redemption. My prayer is that they will magnify the glory of Christ in your daily devotional time and that they will reset your focus away from cultural Christmas norms and back on “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.

Advent starts tomorrow, so check back here for the first devotional.

By His Grace,

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