Observing Advent

December 3rd, 2014

Holiday frenzy

Are you busy? My hunch is you are busier now, in early December, than you are most of the year. Shopping malls and e-retailer websites are busy with people searching for Christmas gifts for loved ones. Kitchens are filled with the aromas of freshly baked cookies, pies and other special holiday baked goods. Mailboxes are loaded with greeting cards from friends and family living both near and far. Radio stations have been broadcasting Christmas music for weeks, and television Christmas specials are playing on the small screen. Office parties, school concerts, family gatherings and get-togethers with friends dot the calendar. All around us, the world has been plunged into the “holiday frenzy.”

The season of Advent beckons to us in the midst of all the end-of-the-year busyness. Observing Advent can help us gain a valuable perspective on what is most important in our lives as individual Christians, in our families, in our congregations and in our world. Paying attention to Advent can also deepen our experience of Christmas. Instead of fretting that the holiday season has become too commercial, we can discover a greater spiritual meaning as we look toward Christmas.

What is Advent?

Advent, a season that starts four Sundays before Christmas, began this year on November 30 and will stretch to Christmas Eve, as it does every year. Advent is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, but it is an ancient Christian practice, first observed in France in the fourth century.

The word Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which means coming, and hints at the focus of this liturgical season. Advent “is a season to prepare for the coming of Christ in various meanings: the promised coming of the Messiah to the Jews, the coming of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the promised return of the risen Christ in final victory and the continual coming of Christ into the lives and hearts of believers,” according to Dean McIntyre of the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship.

Ways to observe Advent

Advent brings with it a number of spiritual practices that can aid spiritual growth. Among the most important seasonal practices is worship. Exploring the lectionary Scripture lessons helps us discover Advent’s emphases. This week, for example, the Old Testament text 2 from Isaiah 40:1-11 centers on the hope of the Jewish people that better days were coming. The Epistle reading, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, focuses on the Christian hope that the risen Christ will come again. In Mark 1:1-8, John the Baptist not only speaks of preparing the way for the Lord, but also points out how we can prepare for the coming of the Lord in our own lives today. When the music, prayers, and other elements of worship work together to proclaim the message of these texts, they reinforce the call for us to prepare the way.

We can prepare the way of the Lord in our lives with spiritual practices in the home. One of our family’s seasonal practices is an Advent calendar. Our calendar is a do-it-yourself version. We write Luke 1:26-56; 2:1-20 on strips of purple paper, dividing the passages into 25 sections. Each day, we read what is written on one strip of paper, form a loop with the paper, and gradually create an Advent calendar paper chain. Another option is to download a free Advent calendar from the General Board of Discipleship. This calendar includes a number of activities, including setting up and talking about the Nativity scene, talking about how we prepare for the coming of the Lord, donating toys to a local hospital and praying for those who are hungry.

If you and your family usually join in prayer before meals, consider modifying your mealtime practice during Advent by singing a prayer before you eat. Dean McIntyre has adapted the traditional Doxology to be sung to the tune of the ancient Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” This adaptation makes an excellent musical prayer for singing a table grace during Advent. A free copy of the lyrics and music are available online.

Another mealtime option is to join together to reflect on Scripture. One easy way is to use the lectionary Bible passages from the Sunday worship service throughout the following week. So for this week, for example, you could discuss how the people of Judah received the prophet’s words in Isaiah 40 or the meaning of the words of Second Peter for us today.

You could join with friends and family to engage in service to others, a fitting spiritual practice during Advent when we prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace. Some possibilities include donating to The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) or to a special ministry of your congregation. You could contact a local agency working with those in need to discover how you can make a hands-on difference, not only in this season but also in the coming year. You could also make plans to be part of a Volunteers in Mission project or another short-term mission. Check with your pastor and/or mission leaders in your annual conference for ideas.

You could form a short-term small group, perhaps meeting by way of electronic media. Together, you can reflect on Scripture, perhaps a passage that was read in worship the previous Sunday. Some great questions for any text include: What do you think this passage meant for those who first heard it? What does it mean for Christians in our time? How will I live my life differently because of this passage?

We can also prepare the way for the Lord with personal spiritual practices. One option is to journal. Take time every day to write your observations, thoughts or questions as you pray, read Scripture, or read an inspirational book. A great seasonal read is Ann Weems’s “Kneeling in Bethlehem,” a collection of accessible and meaningful poems.

Another option is to deepen your prayer life. Set aside more time to pray each day. Pray for those you encounter during this busy time: store employees who are often stressed at this time of year, delivery people who are busier than usual, the people who sent you cards and those on your Christmas card list, and your pastor and other leaders of your congregation.

Moving toward an observant Advent

One caution: Please do not consider the above suggestions as another long list of things you need to do during this busy time of year. Advent observances should enhance your life, not make it more unmanageable. Instead of looking at the suggestions as a must-do list, choose one, two or a few practices that you believe would be most meaningful for you. Also, consider dropping a few items from your normal “holiday frenzy” list. Perhaps bake two or three kinds of Christmas cookies instead of a dozen different varieties. Trim other activities to focus on only those that are most meaningful to you and those you love. I advise doing this trimming in consultation with your loved ones; you may discover that an activity you thought everyone loved is not as high a priority as you assumed.

December can be so much more than a frenetic month, a race ending in exhaustion on Christmas Day. “During most of December, Christians observe Advent, a four-week season of reflection, preparation and waiting that precedes the yearly celebration of Jesus’ birth,” writes Diana Butler Bass. She adds that during these weeks, “there is a muted sense of hope and expectation. Christians recollect God’s ancient promise to Israel for a kingdom where lion and lamb will lie down together.” Bass urges us not to forget about Advent. “These, after all, are the four weeks that the Christian tradition dedicates to God’s vision of justice for the outcast and the oppressed.” The season offers rich opportunities through worship, prayer, Bible reading, and service to reflect on deeper spiritual meanings offered through the coming of Christ.

Have a happy, observant Advent. You may not only grow deeper in your relationship with God, but you may also gain a greater appreciation for Christmas.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

comments powered by Disqus