Lite in the darkness

652px Kerstkrans In a recent USA TODAY story, Cathy Lynn Grossman tracks an interesting trend: the flourishing of Advent prayers and celebrations among non-liturgical Christians.

But nowhere in the article does Grossman detail how the faithful have been observing the four weeks before Christmas for centuries: as a time of penitence, fasting, and preparation, not only for the Feast of the Incarnation, but for the Second Advent of Christ.

The lede is going to make some High Church types scratch their heads in bewilderment.

Evangelical Christians are adopting -- and adapting-- the rituals of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas that are traditionally celebrated by Catholics, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and other liturgical churches.

They're giving a new, personalized spin to the prayers, candles and calendars to track the building excitement, and set a spiritual tone day by day. This year Advent begins on Sunday.

Popular evangelical authors are offering readings and composing prayers for the Advent season. And Family Christian Stores, the nation's largest Christian retailer with 301 stores nationwide, has seen sales of Advent-related items climb 35% in the past year.

What does giving Advent a "new, personalized spin" mean? The writer seems to be suggesting that evangelicals are privatizing the sacred season. In fact, writers in the "High Church" traditions (and in other Christian traditions) have long produced Advent resources for individuals as well as for families.

Described as a "Bible teacher and writer," Nancy Guthrie has published a collection of Advent readings that include writers as diverse as St. Augustine and Presbyterian Church of America minister Tim Keller.

"Since I'm not bound by the traditional Advent, I could choose writers for this collection who break out of the familiar talk of Christmas to the shocking wonder of it, that God revealed himself to the humblest among us," she says.

And here's a sunny quote from writer Stormie Omartian.

Popular devotional writer Stormie Omartian says praying at Advent is another way all Christians can develop their prayer voice.

Her book, the Power of Christmas Prayer, to be reissued in 2009, includes prayers for issues, struggles and unfulfilled dreams that can weigh on us as the year draws to an end. "Advent is such a happy, wonderful time, full of joy. So it's a friendly pathway to prayer," says Omartian, who worships at a non-denominational church in Franklin, Tenn.

Family Christian Stores are also promoting Advent practices, adds Grossman. According to Craig Klamer, senior vice-president of marketing for the stores, this year the countdown-to-Christmas theme includes characters from the popular VeggieTales franchise.

With no quotes from clergy or scholars to ground us in the history of the season, and to either offer a contrast or a foundation, we are left adrift in what feels like a sticky, Splenda-id sea of generic pre-Christmas joy.

The lack of a liturgical voices makes the evangelicals represented here sound like superficial caricatures of "happy-clappy" Christians.

I don't know if this is what the writer intended -- somehow I doubt it.

But because we are not introduced to the richness of the Advent story, we are left wondering: whose Advent is it, anyway?

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