Thoughts about Advent


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Thoughts about Advent

By Bobby Neal Winters

I grew up as a Southern Baptist. This is what the folks who study worship styles would call a “non-liturgical” tradition. What that means is that for all practical purposes is the preacher is the one who does all of the talking. The only time anyone else gets to talk is when the preacher calls upon him unannounced to pray. At least that was my experience.

Since I’m a Methodist now, I am now in a somewhat more liturgical tradition. The preacher doesn’t do all the talking, and when the congregation is called upon to speak, it is more-or-less scripted. Though when the minister says, “The Lord be with you,” getting the congregation to say, “And also with you,” is sometimes like pulling teeth. There is also a lot more standing up and sitting down, and that’s good for blood flow.

There is also the thing about church seasons. I was entirely ignorant about church seasons before becoming a Methodist and remained so for some years thereafter. I suppose I might’ve noticed that the vestments hanging from the pulpit and the altar mysteriously changed color every once in a while, but I never knew there was a rhyme or reason to it. The thought just didn’t occur to me. In my world there are always a lot of things going on I just don’t understand.

Now we are in the season of Advent. This is the time, leading up to Christmas, in which we prepare for the birth of the Christ child as well as the Second Coming of Christ.

The idea that an event might be prepared for is a big one, and putting this into a structure like a church calendar can’t but help having a teaching function. The time is set, and there are a fixed number of days during which the task must be accomplished, so it follows that taking the task and dividing it into doable pieces is a good idea. There are four Advent candles that we light one at a time as the season progresses, and so we mark our progress toward the event.

It has been remarked from time-to-time there are so-called “pagan” elements embedded within the Advent and Christmas seasons. The Christmas tree and the hanging of the green are frequently cited examples of how this is manifested. This is a dicey topic that can turn an ecumenical quilting circle into a free-for-all with scissors and pins in quite short order.

The problem is with the multiple meanings carried by the word “pagan.” On one hand, it is a Latin word that means “countryman,” “peasant,” or, I would like to think, “Okie.” It took on another meaning as it came to be applied to those who practiced the old folk religion because Christianity took hold in the cities before it did in the countryside.

The early natural religions still hang on to a certain extent in the country. If you have ever hung a snake across a fence to make it rain like I have (and have seen it work), then you might understand what I mean.

There are those who would like to insinuate that the liturgical traditions of Christianity have been polluted by these so-called pagan elements. There have been reams written on this, and much of it is quite mean-spirited. However, this never kept me from trying to get my two-cents worth in.

Consider that religions are man’s reaction to God, and one of the ways that God interacts with man is through nature. Consequently, many of the pagan religions focus on some particular aspect of nature such as fertility, various aspects of the weather, or astronomical events. This makes sense. If I am a farmer, I might very well contemplate the mysteries of the Godhead, but “Dear Lord won’t you please make it rain.”

Any religion worth its salt must deal with this part of reality. The trouble with some of the pagan religions was their focus on one particular aspect of nature, or other religious doctrine, to the exclusion of everything else. One need look no further than the various sects that focus only on the Second Coming for examples of this.

A religion should try to look at the unity of all things, birth and death, the natural and the supernatural. One way of doing this is to put it into a liturgical calendar to make sure all important things are given adequate attention, but none is given too much attention.

On the other hand, I still haven’t figured out when you should stand up and when you should sit down, even with the little asterisk in the bulletin that marks it, but nobody else has seemed to figure it out either.

(Bobby is a professor of mathematics, writer, and speaker. You may e-mail him at or visit his website at