Advent Traditions to Try

July 23rd, 2012
Wreath with rose candle ©Lawrence OP | Flickr | Creative Commons

Christians today have a tendency to get into the Christmas spirit a little earlier than we probably should. Retailers in the United States more than a century ago decided that the Christmas season should begin on the Friday following Thanksgiving. Since then any day during the month of December has been fair game for Christmas-themed parties, music, pageants, movies, cookies, and so forth.

In our rush to get started on enjoying Christmas, we often neglect Advent. We celebrate Jesus’ birth without making the necessary preparations. We’re like expectant parents who have “It’s a boy!” balloons ready to tie to our mailbox but haven’t bothered to procure a crib or car seat. We love the idea of having a baby; we just haven’t put much effort into preparing for what we’ll do when the baby arrives.

Many congregations light the candles of the Advent wreath to mark the season. Some mark the season with purple or blue paraments and stoles. Some put together Advent devotionals or offer Advent Bible studies. Christianity is rich with Advent traditions, some of which have been mostly lost, some of which are common in certain denominations or parts of the world, and some of which have yet to be discovered. Here are five ideas for honoring the Advent season, so that it is more than just getting an early start on Christmas.

Gaudete Sunday

Today in the West, Advent roughly corresponds to the secular Christmas [shopping] season. But once upon a time, Advent was a forty-day fast similar to Lent. (In the Eastern church it still is.) The third Sunday was a Rose Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday. “Rose” refers to the pink color of the vestments and paraments that Sunday, a departure from the usual Advent purple. “Refreshment” refers to a break from the Advent fast. Refreshment Sunday was a one-day reprieve from the season of penance and solemn preparation.

Though we no longer observe a forty-day fast, we still carry on Rose Sunday traditions. Many Advent wreaths include a single pink (or rose-colored) candle, along with three purple ones. We light the pink candle on the third Sunday of Advent, which some Christians refer to as Gaudete Sunday.

Gaudete is the Latin word for “rejoice,” and lends its name to the third Sunday of Advent because it is the first word of the introit to that Sunday’s mass: Gaudete in Domino semper. “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

The theme of rejoicing shows up in the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Gaudete Sunday. This year's Lectionary Scriptures include Zephaniah 3:14-20 (“Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.”); Isaiah 12:2-6 ("Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion, because the holy one of Israel is great among you"); and Philippians 4:4-7 ("Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad!")."

So maybe it is O.K. to celebrate before Christmas. Gaudete Sunday is our opportunity to have a mid-December party. But instead of rejoicing because Jesus is born, we should rejoice in God’s promises and what God has in store for us. In addition to decking the halls in pink and lighting the rose candle, we should select appropriate hymns, prayers, and liturgies for this Sunday of rejoicing. We could also hold Gaudete Sunday celebrations on Sunday afternoon or evening, during which we sing songs of joy and break the Advent fast (even if we don’t keep an Advent fast) with a pitch-in feast.

The Jesse Tree

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke go to great lengths to emphasize that Jesus came from the line of King David, son of Jesse. Matthew especially made many connections between ancient Hebrew texts and the birth of Jesus, and Christians for years have seen Christ in Old Testament Scriptures such as Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.” Jesse, in other words, is the trunk of Jesus’ family tree.

Thus the “Jesse tree”—a tree or vine bearing the images of Jesus’ descendants—has been a common motif in the history of Christian art. The Jesse trees that show up on canvases, statues, and stained-glass windows spanning the centuries often depict Jesse, David, David’s son Solomon, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, along with other figures from Jesus’ genealogy.

A more contemporary version of the Jesse tree involves placing ornaments on a tree progressively throughout the Advent season. While some of these ornaments may represent Jesus’ genealogical forebears, the purpose of most Jesse trees today is to honor Jesus’ spiritual descent by telling the story of God’s people. Early in Advent we might adorn the tree with symbols or pictures representing Abraham and Sarah. As the season goes on, we could add a burning bush (Moses), a ram’s horn (Joshua), a shepherd’s crook (David), tears (Jeremiah), and a city wall (Nehemiah) to the tree. Placing the ornaments takes a congregation (or Sunday school class, youth group, or family) through slavery, deliverance, wilderness, Promised Land, kingdom, exile, and return, all leading up to Christ’s birth.

Not every sanctuary has space for a Jesse tree, especially if a Chrismon Tree already takes up valuable real estate. But a Jesse tree doesn’t need to be three dimensional; it could be a poster. And it doesn’t need to be in the sanctuary. Jesse trees might function better in Sunday school rooms, where classes have time to discuss the significance of the symbols they add each week, or in homes, where families can add ornaments each day.

The Empty Manger

I keep an old nativity set in my office for Advent décor. Somewhere along the line I lost baby Jesus. I kept setting up the nativity scene each year anyway, using the excuse that, since we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25 the manger should be remain empty until then. (I don’t have explanations for why shepherds and magi are at the stable at the same time or why Mary doesn’t have a baby bump.)

Italian Christians take the nativity scene, or il presepio, very seriously. They favor the life-size and living varieties of the Christmas crèche to the tabletop, figurine varieties common elsewhere in the Christian world. Many Italian presepi, much like my office nativity, feature an empty manger. This has nothing to do with losing the Jesus statue or not being able to find a suitable baby to play the role. Rather, the baby’s absence is a reminder that we wait expectantly for Jesus: We await the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas; we await all the ways in which Jesus enters our lives and world; and we await the day when Jesus will bring God’s kingdom to fruition. Leaving the manger vacant until Christmas Eve is a way to be intentional about observing Advent as something other than early Christmas: When Jesus is born, we will celebrate. Until then we will prepare our hearts, minds, and lives for Christ.

Get Eschatological

Eschatology refers to the end times or the culmination of all things. What does that have to do with Advent? Everything.

Advent is about much more than getting ready for Christmas. It is a season of preparation for Christ’s promised coming, not only in Bethlehem a couple millennia ago but also his promise to return in glory. Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming,” which itself is a translation of the Greek word parousia, the word the New Testament uses in reference to Christ’s return.

Like many of my fellow Mainline Protestants, I shy away from studies of eschatology, preferring instead to focus on less intimidating (but no less important) topics such as spiritual growth and acts of justice and mercy. But the second coming and the new heaven and new earth are essential to the biblical narrative and Christian theology. Eschatology is a topic that we need to deal with, especially since Jesus’ return is a key theme of an entire season of the Christian calendar.

So during these four weeks in late November and December, we take time to study and reflect on the hope we have for the day when we are “gathered together to be with” Christ (2 Thessalonians 2:1). We shouldn’t limit our Advent studies of eschatology to Revelation, the latter chapters of Daniel, the freakiest portions of Ezekiel, and those verses in 1 Thessalonians that gave birth to the idea of a “rapture.” We see glimpses of God’s vision for the fulfillment of creation throughout Scripture. A Bible study about eschatology should look at God’s promises to the people of Israel, the words spoken by the prophets to the exiles in Babylon, Jesus’ parables about God’s kingdom, and Paul’s instructions for living with the knowledge that Christ will return.

Baby Shower for Mary

I confess that I made up this one.

While Advent is a season of preparation for Jesus’ promised return, it is also a time to prepare to commemorate Jesus’ birth on Christmas. And what should a church do to prepare for the birth of a baby? Throw a shower.

What should we give the expectant mother at this shower? Well, we have a gift registry of sorts in the Gospel of Luke. After Mary learns that she will be the mother of God’s Son, the Messiah, during a visit with her relative Elizabeth, she sings a song of praise that we know today as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). She sings about God showing mercy to everyone, filling the hungry, and lifting up the lowly.

We know a little bit about the baby Mary will be having too. He will identify with the poor, the sick, the hungry, the stranger, and vulnerable.

So we should bring to our baby shower for Mary gifts that support persons who lack food, shelter, clothing, family and companionship, and other needs. Instead of encouraging people to rummage through their cabinets and closets for canned goods and clothes that are out of fashion but still in decent shape, contact agencies and ministries that provide services in your community and find out what they need.

To further honor the mother-to-be, after presenting the gifts, move the party to an assisted living facility, a women’s shelter, or a facility that offers food and shelter to homeless guests and share food and fellowship with the people there.

Our culture’s unofficial charitable giving season roughly corresponds to Advent (which doesn’t do food banks a whole lot of good come May). But as followers of Jesus, who are preparing for him to come into our world and our lives, it isn’t enough to donate boxes of macaroni and cheese or cut a check to the Salvation Army because it’s the thing to do. We need to be clear that showing love and mercy are what Jesus wants and expects from us.


These are but a few of many possibilities for Advent. You might find a way to revive the old English tradition of going “gooding,” which involved women in need visiting homes and offering blessings in exchange for money and other provisions. Your congregation might join the Advent Conspiracy, making a commitment to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all.

Regardless of how we spend the Advent season, what is important is that we make time for Advent instead of starting our Christmas celebrations four weeks early. We need to commit to a time of preparation and expectant waiting, looking forward to all the ways that Christ enters our world.

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