Putting the Advents Back into Advent
by Mary Jane Haemig
Read the PDF
from LF Summer 2012
A serious misconception concerning Advent has taken hold among Lutherans. This misconception insists on seeing Advent as a season of preparation. In many churches we hear what we are supposed to do during Advent, rather than what God does for us in the past, present, and future advents (arrivals or comings) of Christ. Human actions have become the focal point. Whether phrased in inviting motivational language or harsher command language, listeners are told that they must “prepare” for the coming of Christ at Christmas and now have a wonderful opportunity (four weeks!) to do so. The preparatory works recommended may be psychological (clearing one’s mind of distractions) or spiritual (repentance, meditation, remembering, or “holy waiting”) or social (works for others, even helping others prepare for Christmas).
The result? Instead of a joyous proclamation in preaching, teaching, and song of the coming of God to us, listeners are urged to focus on themselves, prepare, wait, and plead for God to come (as if that were somehow in question). Two related moves enhance this change in focus. One is to make eschatology the major focus; the other seeks to return to the medieval practice of making Advent a parallel to Lent, a penitential season in which the emphasis is on our works, repentance chief among them. Between the admonitions to prepare or wait for Christ’s coming at Christmas, the tones of a penitential season, and the contemplations of the last judgment, Advent has become dreary and misses the joyousness of Christ coming to us now.
The shift in Advent emphases has been aided and abetted by lectionary change. We no longer experience on Advent 1 the joy of the “Palm Sunday” lesson: Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and the accompanying consideration of Christ’s coming in the flesh for us. Instead we are thrust immediately into a contemplation of the end times by lectionary texts that tell of Christ’s final coming in judgment. In the lectionary that Luther used—and that was used among Lutherans in North America as recently as the Service Book and Hymnal—Advent Gospel texts focused on the various advents of Jesus, past, present, and future. (More on that below.)
In the Revised Common Lectionary, the focus of the Advent texts is different. Advent 1 focuses on Jesus’ coming at the end of time (Matthew 24:36–44, Mark 13:24–37, Luke 21:25–36). Texts for Advent 2 (Matthew 3:1–12, Mark 1:1–8, Luke 3:1–6) and Advent 3 (Matthew 11:2–11, John 1:6–8 and 19–28, Luke 3:7–18) focus on John the Baptist. Gospel texts for Advent 4 (Matthew 1:18–25, Luke 1:26–38, Luke 1:39–45) focus on preparation for the birth of Jesus. When the RCL was issued, the comment made by the Consultation on Common Texts reveals that it saw eschatology and preparation as the alternatives for Advent: “The structure of the Christmas cycle presumes an Advent which is basically eschatological (looking forward to the return or second coming of the Lord Jesus and the realization of the reign of God) more than a season of preparation for Christmas (which recalls his first coming among us).” The sixteenth-century Lutheran reformers, by contrast, did not see either of these as the major emphasis of the season, choosing instead to discuss and proclaim three distinct comings of Christ and what God is doing in each of them.
Worship and education materials produced for clergy and laity reinforce the idea that Advent is a season of preparation. See, for example, the Manual on the Liturgy: Lutheran Book of Worship (1979), which notes: “The year begins with Advent, a season of preparation that looks toward both Bethlehem and the consummation.” A 2011 article in the Thrivent magazine on “Anticipating Christmas” characterizes Advent as “the season of waiting.” It is full of activities (“Light an Advent wreath at home,” “Buy or make an Advent calendar,” “Encourage good deeds in Jesus’ name,” “Make a Jesse tree”) for readers to do during Advent. The introduction to a popular series of readings for Advent declares that the “main purpose” of its collection of readings is to “encourage the rediscovery of Advent as a season of inward preparation.” One could cite many other such examples.
The practical results are significant. People already harried and hassled by preparing for Christmas celebrations are now told in church that they have to prepare for Christ’s coming or be better at waiting for it. Advent has become one more thing to do—hardly good news.
It is time for Lutherans to return to seeing Advent as a season of proclaiming and celebrating the past, present, and future advents of Christ to us and for us, not as a season focused on human actions. Martin Luther and his followers made it clear that Advent is a season to proclaim the coming of God to us and the benefits and consolations associated with each of those advents. Lutheran preaching during the Advent season in the sixteenth century was consistent with Luther’s new paradigm that God comes to and redeems us as a free gift rather than requiring us to come to Him, offering good works for our salvation. During Advent, Luther and his followers proclaimed what God in Christ had done, is doing, and will do, in each of His advents. They rejected any teaching that the season consisted in human works of preparation. Though they continued the use of the lectionary inherited from the late medieval Roman church and, in common with the received homiletical tradition, used these texts to highlight the past, present, and future advents of Christ, they departed from the medieval tradition of emphasizing human preparation for those comings.
It is worthwhile to review briefly what Reformation-era Lutheran pastors preached during Advent. Matthew 21:1–9 was the Gospel text for Advent 1 and told of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem (the “Palm Sunday” text). Lutheran preachers used this text to preach Jesus coming as a gift to you. Luther saw v. 5, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden,” as the “chief part” of the Gospel reading, for “in it Christ is pictured to us and we are told what we are to believe and to expect of him.” When explaining the clauses “He is coming” and “He is coming to you,” Luther emphasized that “you do not come to him and bring him to you; he is too high and too far from you. With all your effort, work, and labor you cannot come to him, lest you boast as though you had received him by your own merit and worthiness.” For Luther, God begins, sustains, and completes His work. Luther comments that “it is not for you to work or to begin to be godly… there is no other beginning than that your king comes to you and begins to work in you.” The preached gospel and its hearing always come first.
Advent 2 in the sixteenth century used Luke 21:25–33 as its Gospel reading. This text concerns the signs of the end times and Christ’s coming to judge. Eschatological expectations were high in the sixteenth century, and preachers thought this was reason to repent, to change one’s way of living. Lutherans focused on the phrase “lift up your heads” and sought to comfort and encourage their listeners with the certainty that “your salvation is near.” The coming of Christ to judge was, for the believer, not a source of fear but rather of hope.
The Gospel texts for Advent 3 (Matthew 11:2–11) and Advent 4 (John 1:19–28) both concerned John the Baptist. Lutheran preachers used these texts to talk about Christ’s coming into the present time through the preaching of the word. Lutherans saw John the Baptist as the prototype of the evangelical preacher and focused on his message. He was an example for preachers not so much because of his personal characteristics or exemplary lifestyle but rather because he preached rightly; that is, he preached both repentance and forgiveness. In Matthew 11:2–11, John the Baptist sends his disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?” For Lutherans, his action in sending his disciples to Jesus was consistent with John’s office as a preacher: he prepared the way by directing people to Jesus.
The reader may protest that preparation and, indeed, repentance are legitimate parts of Advent. A glance at Reformation-era Lutheran preaching for Advent 4 affirms this—but the key questions are who does them and whether they are a cause or a result of Christ’s coming. The Gospel text for Advent 4, John 1:19–28, told of the priests who came from Jerusalem and asked John the Baptist, “Who are you?” He responded, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” In the Advent 4 sermon on John 1:19–28 in his 1522 Advent postil, Luther wrote:
“The way of the Lord, as you have heard, is that he does all things within you, so that all our works are not ours but his, which comes by faith. This, however, is not possible if you desire worthily to prepare yourself by praying, fasting, self-mortification, and your own works, as is now generally and foolishly taught during the time of Advent. A spiritual preparation is meant, consisting in a thoroughgoing knowledge and confession of your being unfit, a sinner, poor, damned, and miserable, with all the works you may perform. The more a heart is thus minded, the better it prepares the way of the Lord, although meanwhile possibly drinking fine wines, walking on roses, and not praying a word.”
For Lutheran preachers, preparation was something God does through the preaching of the word, not something we do through virtuous actions.
Advent is an opportunity to preach and teach the gospel in accordance with classic Lutheran emphases. God comes to us and does His work on us, without any merit, worthiness, or preparation on our part. When properly understood, Advent is a surprise and relief—Christ comes without our preparation, in the midst of our unreadiness. Christ does not come only at Christmas but rather takes the initiative to come every day in the speaking of the word.
What to do? One could simply go back to the Gospel lessons of the old lectionary. Another alternative is to look at the current lectionary and find in those lessons the classic Lutheran emphases on the various advents of Christ and the work that God does in them. Look, for example, at the Gospel lessons for Year C. Advent 1 uses Luke 21:25–36. Here one could take a cue from sixteenth-century Lutheran preachers and emphasize v. 28: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The coming of Christ in judgment is a source of hope and consolation. Both Advent 2 and Advent 3 use texts featuring John the Baptist. Rather than focusing on the person of John the Baptist, on Advent 2 center on Luke 3:4b, “Prepare the way of the Lord…” and emphasize God’s work of preparation in us. On Advent 3, Luke 3:7–18 continues this story and sees Jesus as the coming judge. The evangelical preacher could choose to emphasize the words from v. 17 that Christ will come “to gather the wheat into his barn” and stress that Christ is coming now to gather you to himself. On Advent 4, Mary’s song in Luke 1:46–55 could be used to speak of what God does when He comes and to emphasize the continuity of God’s promise through time. This would mean we would hear of Christ’s advent in the flesh on the fourth Sunday, his advent among us now in the work of the Holy Spirit on the second and third Sundays, and his Advent in glory at the end of time on the first Sunday of Advent. Of course, from a Lutheran perspective, we might want to raise questions about beginning the church year with a focus on Christ’s coming in glory rather than on his coming in the flesh to die for us.
The change in Advent emphases is also evident in hymnody. Many Lutheran Advent hymns correlate with the old lectionary texts. Words such as “God’s people, see him coming; your own eternal king! Palm branches strew before him! Spread garments! Shout and sing!” drew on the Advent 1 text of the former lectionary and no longer relate as clearly to Advent. But the problem goes deeper than mere correlation of hymn with lectionary text. Instead of the joyous certainty of Christ’s coming proclaimed in “Fling wide the door, unbar the gate: the King of glory comes in state” (ELW 259), we hear congregations plead for Christ to come, singing dirge-like renditions week after week of “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel” (ELW 257), full of language that seems to assume Emmanuel has not yet actually come. Contrast this with, “O Lord, how shall I meet you, how welcome you aright?” which assumes that God is coming; the only question is how we will receive Him. When traditional Lutheran Advent hymns sing of human preparation and repentance, they place these in a context that emphasizes God’s work. “For the herald’s voice is crying in the desert far and near, calling us to true repentance, since the reign of God is here” makes clear that our repentance does not cause God’s reign to come but rather takes place because it has come. When these hymns strike themes of repentance, the certainty of God’s mercy is never in question. “I lay in fetters, groaning; you came to set me free. I stood, my shame bemoaning; you came to honor me. A glorious crown you give me, a treasure safe on high that will not fail or leave me as earthly riches fly.”
Classic Lutheran Advent hymnody, focused on proclaiming and rejoicing in the coming of Christ to us, no longer “fits” an Advent season that stresses human preparation. Consider some recent hymnody. “All Earth is Hopeful” emphasizes human works of preparation: “Mountains and valleys will have to be prepared; new highways opened, new protocols declared.” “Unexpected and Mysterious” sings “We are called to ponder mystery and await the coming Christ, to embody God’s compassion for each fragile human life.” “People, Look East” admonishes us to “Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.” Contrast these admonitions to the good news of “To God’s people now proclaim that God’s pardon waits for them! Tell them that their war is over: God will reign in peace forever.”18
It is time for Lutherans once again to use the Advent season as the Lutheran Reformers did and reject recent moves that focus on human activity during this season. The central evangelical message must shine through Advent and not be obscured by it. Instead of focusing narrowly on preparation or waiting for Christmas or on the final judgment, Advent is an opportunity to give a wider sense of time and to proclaim the God Who came for us in the past, comes for us in the present, and will come again for us in the future. It invites us to think broadly of God’s work in all dimensions of time. Let us put down our works of preparation and instead hear the good news of the God Who comes to us. He doesn’t wait until Christmas to come; neither should we wait until Christmas to hear, contemplate, and celebrate His coming.
Mary Jane Haemig recently retired as Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Subscribe now to enjoy great content like this delivered quarterly to your door!
1. These texts and themes parallel Roman Catholic practice. See Lectionary for Mass: Study Edition, vol. I: Sundays, Solemnities, Feasts of the Lord and the Saints (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), xxxvi. “Each Gospel reading has a distinctive theme: the Lord’s coming at the end of time (First Sunday of Advent), John the Baptist (Second and Third Sundays), and the events that prepared immediately for the Lord’s birth (Fourth Sunday).”
2. The Revised Common Lectionary (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), 14.
3. Philip H. Pfatteicher and Carlos R. Messerli, Manual on the Liturgy: Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1979).
4. Alison Rice, “Anticipating Christmas: Ideas for introducing your children to the season of Advent,” Thrivent (Fall 2011): 20–21.
5. Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Farmington: Plough Publishing, 2001), xv.
6. Mary Jane Haemig, “Sixteenth-Century Preachers on Advent as a Season of Proclamation or Preparation,” Lutheran Quarterly 16 (2002): 125–51.
7. Martin Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther: The Church Postils, vol. 1, ed. John Lenker (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 20.
8. Ibid., 25.
9. Ibid., 25–26.
10. Ibid., 124.
11. Frans Mikael Franzen, “Prepare the Royal Highway,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006) [hereafter cited as ELW], #264, v. 2.
12. Paul Gerhardt, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You,” ELW 241.
13. Johann Olearius, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People,” ELW 256, v. 2.
14. Gerhardt, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You.”
15. Alberto Taulé, “All Earth is Hopeful,” ELW 266, v. 3.
16. Jeannette M. Lindholm, “Unexpected and Mysterious,” ELW 258, v. 3.
17. Eleanor Farjeon, “People, Look East,” ELW 248, v. 1.
18. Olearius, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People,” v.1.