Last Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, one of the most important seasons on the Christian calendar. In many Christian churches, the season is commemorated by keeping an advent wreath, with its four candles, in the sanctuary. On the first Sunday before Christmas, the hope candle is lit. On the second Sunday, the Bethlehem candle, a visible reminder of the manger and prophecies of Jesus’ coming to earth, is lit. The third Sunday in advent is called Laetare (Latin for “rejoice”) Sunday. Biblical accounts of the shepherds’ joy at Jesus’ birth are read and the third Advent candle is lit. On the fourth Sunday, the Angel’s candle is lit. In many churches, the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1) is often read. Some churches also have a fifth candle, called the Christ candle, which is lit at traditional Christmas Eve services.
Advent meant absolutely nothing to me for many years. From the time I was about fourteen till I was twenty-five, I considered myself to be an atheist, an angry one at that. I lashed out at religious people. I mocked them all, especially Christians. I believed they were hypocritical or intellectually weak. It wasn’t until 1965, when I was serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, that the walls of hate I’d built over the years began to crumble. I’d come to Vietnam believing that, when all is said and done, life doesn’t have much meaning. You live…you die…then you rot. With that as a guiding philosophy, I had no room for God. I was too strong for that. Then, a fellow soldier told me about Jesus and said he was praying for me. I mocked him like I’d done to so many other religious people, but, this man was different. No matter how much I mocked him, he kept telling me that God loved me and he did too. “I’m praying for you, Phil.” In early December of that year, his prayers began to haunt me. “What if he’s right about this Jesus?” “If there is an after-life, what does that mean to me?” “Was I really going to be judged in the end?” Just before Christmas I got to watch Bob Hope’s annual Christmas show at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. When the show concluded with Anita Bryant singing “Silent Night,” I began to silently plead, “Are you real?” “Did you really come to earth to save us?” “If that’s true, does that include me?” “If you’re really there and you’re really alive, please show me the way.”
Over the next two years, events proved to my complete satisfaction that what my fellow soldier had told me was, indeed, true. I became a Christian in August of 1967.
It’s been almost fifty years since my conversion and I still find the Advent season one of the most meaningful in my life. Jesus’ advent two thousand years ago opened the door to an advent in my life.
I’ve tried my best over the years to tune out the noise that tries to overshadow the meaning of Advent to me. I wish I could say that I always succeed, but that wouldn’t be true. There’s always a lot in this world that can be distracting and I’m always tempted to get into the fray.
This year is no different. There are, as there always have been, wars and rumors of war. We’ve got church scandals galore. Our political and civil discourse has become a sewer. No one seems to care about bringing us together. As author Brad Gregory put it in his most recent book, “The Unintended Reformation” – “Neither politicians nor journalists nor academics nor celebrities appear to have any answers about how to reverse the trajectory of polarization. Instead, the American public square seems to grow ever coarser and angrier.” In terms of faith and belief, we are witnessing what author Mary Eberstadt recently described as “a sea change from a civilization that widely fears God, to one that now often jeers him.” It’s true. The ranks of the faithful are thinning.
With belief on the wane, many pundits, humanists like James Haught (the November 27th edition of the Gazette), and even atheists are now trying to squeeze Jesus into their political or philosophical mold at this special time of the year? Why are we endlessly bombarded with Jesus the radical, Jesus the defender of the status quo, Jesus the Democrat, Jesus the radical, or Jesus the Republican? What’s their agenda?