Faithful Living in Advent

Ryan Danker on December 21, 2023

A few weeks ago, I published a very pro-Advent article in Firebrand Magazine. This was spurred by a number of things – including a banger of a sermon on Advent 1 by Ambassador J. Peter Pham given at St. Paul’s K Street here in Washington but also because of a number of social media posts of churches, again on Advent 1, launching the Christmas season with “Christmas Sunday” or a pageant and dragging out trees, wreathes, lights, nativities, and all sorts of Christmas “stuff” on what the church has designated as Advent 1. And this wasn’t just in non-liturgical churches – this included churches that should know better.

So I wrote the article. It was mainly positive. I didn’t take too many jibes at people, even if they would have deserved it; who take their cues from the secular calendar and not the sacred, and design the worship of the church according to the standards of marketing agencies rather than the church’s historic witness. But still I withheld my high church venom. 

People often refer to the “Advent Police”; those who gripe about “Christmas creep” and along with the famed Fleming Rutledge, I’m glad to be numbered amongst that august company. 

But it’s not just about knowing how to read calendars, liturgical or otherwise. There are profound reasons why the number of Advent Police should exponentially increase – and its not just to be some sort of Scrooge, even if that too can be fun. 

We actually need Advent. 

Advent is counter-cultural. It’s the season of expectation, hope, darkness, and light, but for many within the church this season is either truncated or forgotten altogether. 

The problem isn’t simply one acknowledged by high churchmen. In fact, it’s not a high church or low church thing. We’re not talking about how many candles go on altars or whether to wear a fiddleback chausable or simple choir dress. Instead, it’s a failure to offer the formation that we – followers of Jesus here and now – actually need to live in the “now-but-not-yet,” the life after Christ’s nativity, death, and resurrection, but before the consummation of all things. 

It’s the only season of the church’s year that actually teaches us this vital aspect of discipleship. 

When we’re honest about the challenges, the suffering, and the darkness that inevitably accompanies life, we need to be formed in life-giving hope. We also need to learn once more what it means to prepare for Christ’s coming – his first advent, his presence now, and his second advent. This is what the season of Advent can provide if we’ll only allow it. 

On the first Sunday of Advent, many churches around the world sing the rousing Charles Wesley hymn, “Lo! He comes with clouds descending.” I didn’t recommend that for us today as we need a few more strong singers to pull of the musical setting often given to the text.  

I will always remember singing that hymn, however, at Westminster Abbey in 2011. I was sitting in the northern transept of that historic church. Most of the people around me didn’t know the tune very well. So I sang a little louder to help them out – we also had a multi-thousand pipe pipe organ and a professional choir to aid us – but by the last verse we were all singing “lustily” as brother John instructed. The text, however, is a striking description of Christ’s second coming in glory accompanied by the faithful of all ages: 

Lo! he comes, with clouds descending, 
once for our salvation slain; 
thousand thousand saints attending 
swell the triumph of his train: 
Alleluia! Alleluia! Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

This Advent hymn is just one of the many rich texts that enable us to enter into this season of preparation. Looking under “Advent” in the latest pan-Wesleyan hymnal, Our Great Redeemer’s Praise, reveals a treasure-trove of Advent hymns including: Come, Thou long-expected Jesus; Jesu, joy of our desiring; Let all mortal flesh keep silence; Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming; O come, O come, Emmanuel, and many others. 

In his sermon for Advent 1 this year at St. Paul’s, Ambassador Pham boldly proclaimed that as Christians we live year-around in Advent. We live in expectation. But we also live as Christians in a world where we have to face the realities of life and death. We live in a world in which suffering is real. Anyone who watches the news can see that disease, war, violence, and strife are rampant around the world. But we also know that this is not simply in the news; it’s something that our loved ones and we experience ourselves. 

Lately, I’ve been particularly struck by this reality – I think it comes with age. Friends and family get sick. Financial ruin is possible. Rejection in this world can be constant. We hear of loneliness in the nation’s cities and we know that this isn’t just a statistic, it’s about real people. I recently met a fairly new DC resident – a constant in this city for sure – but he told me that he almost left the area in the first few months of his time here because of near-crushing loneliness and isolation. 

It goes without saying that we are also an Easter people. This is true. But the promise of Easter – the new creation launched in a graveyard with the resurrection of the same Jesus who died for our sins – is still a promise, even for those who touched the resurrected Christ. When we die, unlike Christ, we do not usually rise from the dead after three days. 

We know that we will rise like Christ, but that hope is set on the second coming, the culmination of Christ’s work. For now, it is hope based firmly on the faithfulness of God. 

In the funeral service, a service that, when we’re honest, still stings, still evokes grief and loss, we hear the words of scripture as promise: “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and thou this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.”

Many of the church’s challenges comes down to our inability to acknowledge the full story of Christ’s redemptive work, a work that includes – in the “between time” – suffering alongside those who suffer, mourning with those who mourn, weeping with those who weep, and working together for a better world in the expectation that Christ will complete his work and make all things whole. 

This is what Isaiah foretold in the words of scripture that were just read a few minutes ago. What’s beautiful about that text, of course, is that like so much else in the prophetic language of the Old Testament we can see its fulfillment multiple times; this is one of the church’s gifts in reading the Old Testament. It was fulfilled in Christ’s coming – we can see that – but it will be ultimately fulfilled in his second coming when all things are finally made whole.

But we must wait. And waiting isn’t just sitting and doing nothing. Wesley split with a group of Christians who thought that waiting on God was completely inactive. They argued that until someone was saved, he or she shouldn’t even read their bibles or pray, but just wait for God to move. The problem is, this isn’t how God works: we’re called to wait actively; anticipation is active, not passive. And in this vein, Advent is a very active season, one of preparation and therefore formation. 

One of the beautiful prayers of Compline asks God for aid in this time of waiting, to “tend the sick” to “give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for thy love’s sake.” This is essentially what Advent is all about, forming us for a life that walks through the shadow of death, but is not overcome by it. 

The prayers during the season of Advent, the lectionary readings appointed for the Sundays of the season, and the hymns of Advent are an immensely rich resource. Thomas Cranmer’s collects in the Book of Common Prayer, as just an example, are a rich resource all on their own. The prayer for the first Sunday of Advent asks God to “give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life,” so that when Christ comes in final victory “to judge both the quick and dead, we may rise to the life immortal.” Note the emphasis on the here and now, even as it looks toward the consummation of Christ’s work. 

The emphasis in all of the prayers of the season is the both/and of Advent, formation now for full redemption to come. These prayers exemplify the beauty of Advent. 

Over the last few months, I have travelled extensively speaking to church leaders and to everyday believers. What I have found is a deep yearning for the substance of the faith. It can be seen throughout the church as more and more believers – and even non-believers who are watching us – know deep down that the Christian faith offers more substance and more power than they have heard about or experienced in their faith journey thus far. 

I met some who have stopped going to church altogether, not because they have lost their faith but because they could see very clearly that what was on offer was shallow and less than useful when the realities of life arise. This yearning for substance is, in part, a yearning for Advent. It’s a yearning for a faith that can look life, and death, in the face, not to pretend that challenges don’t exist, of course, but to rather to see the promise through the tears.  

But if we celebrate Advent, Christmas will only be one day! No, it really is twelve days like the song says. And if you’re being truly old school, you can keep your decorations up until Candlemas, Feb. 2. 

But does this mean that we shouldn’t participate in the Christmas parties, parades, and other markers of life in December? No. Put up your tree at home. Bake those cookies. Advent formation does not mean that we need to go around acting joyless. So go ahead and enjoy those Christmas parties – even during Advent. Even here in the office tomorrow night. My concern is the liturgical formation of the faithful, particularly on Sunday mornings, and particularly in the preaching and worship of our corporate gatherings.

Advent is counter-cultural, even in the church. But it shouldn’t be. The season offers us the formation we need to live faithfully in a world that still yearns for God’s work of ultimate renewal. It offers us a faith that – even when tears come – can still provide authentic peace. It teaches us to hope in the unchanging faithfulness of God, to face the darkness, the suffering, and even death, still now a part of life. It teaches us to look to that great day when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” and where “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying” and “no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Even so, come Lord Jesus. But in the meantime, teach us how to live in Advent. 


  1. Comment by David on December 23, 2023 at 12:37 pm

    Thank you so much for this., Ryan. Last week I worshipped in a church in which all the hymns were Christmas hymns and the sermon revolved around the visit of the magi. We are too ready to rush into celebration of Christ’s birth, and we completely miss the reality that in this age we live through a very long Advent in which we wait for the consummation of God’s kingdom. There are so many beautiful Advent hymns that go unsung in many of our churches. My favourite is “Saviour of the Nations, Come,” which is filled with the aching yearning for salvation in Jesus Christ. I feel this especially this year, because a close friend of mine just buried his wife at too young an age. All I can say through the tears is: Come, Jesus, come!

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