Finding Hidden Treasure:
An Evangelical Discovers Advent 
by Rev. Dr. Jack L. Daniel

We occasionally read of a person finding a valuable treasure at a yard sale because the owner simply didn’t know what he or she had. Something like that happened to a friend of mine. Newly arrived as the pastor of a country church near Boston, my friend found an old oil painting in a parsonage closet. He was told the work, dark and cracking, had been given to the church 100 years before and, further, that the Madonna and Child was a copy that had been appraised at $2,000. The church badly needed funds for repairs, and so my friend suggested selling it. But first, on a whim, he contacted the Boston office of Christie’s auction house. Their art expert also thought it was a copy—but a very old one—and offered $100K. My friend’s interest was piqued, so he then called the competition, Sotheby’s. Their expert examined it, decided it was original, and appraised it at $1 to $1.5 million. After a world tour by Sotheby’s, the painting indeed sold for $1.1 million. It was a 500-year-old original work by the Italian Renaissance master Andrea Del Sarto. The moral of the story is, you may have hidden treasure, so don’t discard it before checking.

More and more evangelicals today are discovering a hidden treasure that many of their forebears had discarded: it’s called Advent. Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas Day. The word means “arrival” or “coming” and refers to both the first and second coming of Jesus. Advent is a very old treasure indeed, dating from the 4th century during the reign of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor. It was an effort by the early church to organize the calendar around historic events in Christianity, just as Judaism is organized around the Jewish year, with its emphasis on the Exodus as the central event of God’s redemption of Israel. Thus the Church Year, though not commanded in Scripture, became a way of recounting the central events of our redemption in Christ. Advent looked back on the coming of Jesus as the helpless infant of Mary, and it looked ahead to the return of Jesus in history as the triumphant King of Glory.

In the church I pastored for 35 years, we had to discover Advent anew because it had never been a practice in our 150-year history. I believe this was because of the strong bias against Roman Catholicism on the part of the Scottish, Calvinistic founders of the church. (Advent actually predates the “Roman” Catholic Church, originating when there was just one universal, or catholic, church.) Given the bloody, fiery persecution of Protestants throughout Medieval Europe, maybe they had a reason for being suspicious of Rome. Indeed, early Calvinist Protestants tended to eschew anything that hinted of Roman Catholicism. Some of my elderly Scottish members recalled that as recently as the early 20th century, Christmas itself was downplayed in Scotland. Instead, much was made of New Year’s Eve (“auld lang sine”) as both a Christian and secular holiday.

I discovered the hidden treasure of Advent early in my ministry through the encouragement of our music director. He introduced me to many Advent carols, such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a gem from the 12th century; “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” by Charles Wesley; and “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending,” also by Wesley and one of the few hymns with a Second Coming theme. I also discovered the granddaddy of Advent hymns, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” written in the 4th century to help explain the deity of Christ as expounded in the Nicene Creed. It’s my favorite of all. Why had music like this endured for so long? Because it was real treasure, and real treasure has value forever.

Over time, as I gradually introduced Advent to our church, we discovered its many values. Here are four that flourished during the Advent season:

Discipleship. Advent was originally conceived as a discipleship tool to prepare converts for their baptism at Easter. Martin Luther broadened its purpose, seeing it as a discipleship opportunity for the Christian family; he introduced the Advent Wreath as a tangible way to teach children. In the 19th century, as Christmas increasingly became a secular holiday, the Advent Service of Lessons and Carols was created by the Anglican Church in Cambridge, England. Today, many churches use Advent as a way to encourage people to step back from the lights and frenzy of Christmas to reflect with their families on the full meaning of the Incarnation. Personally, I began scheduling an overnight retreat at an Anglican monastery near Boston at the start of Advent. It was a time for me to pray, to think, to worship, to refresh my soul, and to plan. When our children were older, my wife would accompany me. We still treasure those contemplative retreats and the way they enhanced our appreciation of and preparation for the season.

Our church also began using an Advent wreath in the worship service. And at an annual Advent Wreath workshop, we provided families with the tools to make their own wreaths for observing Advent at home and teaching their children the true meaning of Christmas. Some years we prepared our own devotional guide covering the approximately 40 days (from Advent to Epiphany) with scriptures and reflections written by our own members. (Warning: If you decide to do this, start planning in the summer.)

Momentum and Focus for Worship Services. Our music leaders found it easier to recruit singers and musicians at Christmas and Advent since people knew they were signing up for just a few weeks. Parents were eager to have their children participate in children’s choirs and Christmas pageants to explain the meaning of Christmas. Worship planning became more focused since the season set the parameters. Sermon planning became easier, as well. There is no shortage of biblical material, doctrinal content, and practical application. For a while, I used the lectionary and met with a group of pastors to plan sermons together. It was a fun and creative time.

Outreach to the Community. Outreach into the community also seemed more natural as church members felt comfortable inviting non-churched friends to services they knew would be “Christmasy”—both visitor-friendly and Christ-centered. Advent and Christmas became rich evangelistic opportunities because this Christian holiday is the one time in the year when popular culture and the church briefly intersect. We found that otherwise, very worldly parents would seek out Christmas opportunities for their children. This was especially true for many former or estranged Roman Catholics who were looking for a worship experience that had some familiar liturgy but was offered in a family-friendly form. Our church grew largely through ex-Catholic converts. Some pastors have also observed millennials’ attraction to ancient traditions.

Our discovery of Advent as an outreach opportunity led us to offer events we felt the wider public would be comfortable attending. One has become a perennial favorite: sort of a smaller version of a Boston Pops concert with a carol sing-along by a well-known New England brass band. No overtly Christian message was given, only an opening prayer; we let the great carols of Christmas do the talking. Another community event was a Breakfast (and photo) with Santa, offered by local merchants to promote downtown shopping but hosted in our spacious (and Christmas bedecked) fellowship hall as a gift to our town. These and similar events simply got the local community into our building, with the hope that when friends invited them to worship, they would know about our church and feel at ease crossing the threshold. It worked. Christmas was a time when many individuals began their spiritual journey to Christ in our church.

Getting outsiders into your building is what one pastor friend calls “billboard evangelism.” When his church needed a plumber, they called one who had billboards all over their metro area with an 800 number. My friend questioned the effectiveness of a billboard phone number, impossible to read as people sped by. The plumber replied that, of course, drivers couldn’t call the number, but they noted the name. Then, when they needed a plumber, they knew the name and looked up the number. Don’t neglect events that get people into your building and meeting your parishioners. When they need a church, it’s more likely they will approach yours. We typically followed up by offering an Alpha course each January and encouraging visitors to explore Christianity in what they now knew was a safe, welcoming setting.

Compassion Ministries. The momentum of Christmas moves people naturally to want to give to those in need. We found, as many churches do, that projects like Angel Tree and Operation Christmas Child were opportunities for our people to express that generosity. Our men’s ministry particularly enjoyed volunteering as bell ringers for the Salvation Army at local stores. Each Advent, we also planned a special Christmas offering designated to a ministry organization serving the least of the least, locally or overseas. Our people always responded generously and cheerfully.

The Advent and Christmas season concludes with Epiphany, January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas. According to tradition, this marks the visit by the gift-bearing Magi. Epiphany, meaning “manifestation,” refers to the manifestation of Jesus Christ to all the nations of the world, as represented by the pagan “three kings.” It can be an ideal occasion for a church to refocus on its wider mission to the world in the new year.

If your church does not celebrate the fullness of Advent, I encourage you to do so. You will find hidden treasure far more valuable than old paintings. Advent will focus your ministry on the greatest treasure of all, the coming of the incarnate Son of God into the world.