My First Advent

Although as a child I celebrated a good number of Christmases, I haven’t really done so in about 15 years, not since I converted to Judaism. This always puzzled people; Christmas has become so secularized in American culture, celebrated by practically everyone regardless of culture or religious background, that it was downright strange that I did not even sing a Jingle Bells. The answer was very simple, however: Christmas is a Christian holiday.

ChristianityToday.com had an article this week whose title immediately caught my attention and which speaks precisely to this:

What a Rabbi Taught Me About Keeping Christ In Christmas
by Karl Vaters
“Keep Christ in Christmas” is a familiar saying this time of the year. But you don’t expect to hear it from the local rabbi.

Actually, I heard that, or something to the same effect, from my various rabbis constantly during this time of year, as a reminder of why Jews don’t celebrate Christmas. The rabbi in the article puts it like this:

“I think Christians ought to keep Christ in Christmas.”

Until this point, my interest in the conversation had been minimal, but when a rabbi tells me to keep Christ in Christmas, he has my full attention.

“Did I hear you right, Steve?” I asked him.

“Absolutely,” he said. “As Jews, we don’t secularize our holidays. It amazes me when Christians water down their message with things that have nothing to do with their faith.”

As popular as Santa Claus and all the other accouterments of the season have become, it doesn’t change what the holiday is about: Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. As a Jew, for 15 years, I did not celebrate Christmas because it wasn’t my holiday. And even if the last couple of years I wasn’t necessarily the most observant of Jews, and I joined in with my friends in their joy during this season, I still wasn’t celebrating it for myself.

This year, however, as a Christian, I am fully celebrating Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ, and celebrating something I have never done before, my first Advent.

I know from my Catholic upbringing that Advent is the name of the period leading up to Christmas in much the same way that Lent is the period leading up to Easter. As an adult, and as a new Christian, I wanted to not just celebrate the way a child does, but also learn and understand the season and the message it has for us. I have been doing this by a handful of different learning methods.

My church (the local one), Summit Church, has been doing a 4-part Advent series called “God Given,” where teaching minister Zach Van Dyke has been looking at the prophecy in Isaiah 9:6, and delivering a message about how Jesus embodies each of the names given to him, both in Scripture, and to us today.

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
~Isaiah 9:6 (NASB)

My other church (the one in Delaware), The Journey, is set to start a new 3-part series this week entitled “Joy!” and I look forward to the message from Pastor Mark Johnston as well.

I have also been reading an Advent devotional called The Heart of Christmas, by Hank Hanegraaff, which I picked up at the store on sale. It’s a little booklet with reflections, readings from Scripture, questions to think about, and a carol for each day of Advent. I try to read it in the morning, before going to work, as a way to set the tone and get my mind thinking about God, and the Advent season.

I am also reading a book called The First Christmas, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I recognized Crossan’s name from a number of NatGeo and History Channel documentaries, which led me to give the book a shot. Its premise is that we all know the story of the birth of Jesus, but mostly from it being told to us, not so much from Scripture, so the authors set out to look at the text, place it in its historical and cultural context, and explore what Scripture has to tell us about the birth of Jesus in Israel during the first century under the rule of Imperial Rome.

And of course, I am reading the gospels to read for myself the text of the nativity, and all the related verses and passages.

I have a variety of opinions and theologies represented in my current study tools for Advent, which is interesting as they combine to create a bigger picture, and a more challenging vision, of the season, all of which I find stimulating.

So far I am enjoying my first Advent, and I look forward to the remaining days and all the study and knowledge they will bring, as we all walk toward Bethlehem.