Advent calendars, the kind with the pull open windows and chocolates inside, began their annual appearances just moments after the trick-or-treat-ers finished their rounds on Halloween. Some folks grumble about this, but I smiled when I saw them, thankful for the reminder that Advent was on its way.
Advent is the churchy word for the season of preparation leading up to Christmas. Those calendars and their tiny treats are our modern take on ancient practice to mark sacred time. For Christians, Advent is a time of waiting, listening, and preparing. This is not the kind of preparing that requires to-do lists, running around buying gifts and groceries, or cleaning in anticipation of guests filling every sleeping space in the house. Advent is different.
Advent is a kind of preparing that is required to be able to eventually join our voices with the mighty and the lowly, the shepherds and the wise ones, to announce with trumpets and shouts that pierce through the silence of night, to say that implausible has happened. Heaven has bent low and touched the earth. The holy is present. The age old promises are true. God is with us.
We will declare this come Christmas Day by looking towards a baby in a manager as evidence, surrounded by a teen mom and an adoptive dad who will have to wait weeks before the court makes his role as a dad official. Truth is, we have to prepare to hear this age-old story. It is simply too strange to hear without a bit of preparation and reading through some of the preface.
We often begin Advent with the words of the prophets or the story of Israelites in exile, so that by the time we hear Jesus’s words, we can see that hope, peace, joy and love….aren’t just a new fad. It’s what the divine in our midst has always been striving for. We begin at the point in the story where folks are anticipating and pointing towards a new day, a new way, of peace and provision.
All the while, as we hear the ancient story unfold, it is important to remember that Advent isn’t some intellectual exercise. Advent requires some heart work. Advent brings with it an invitation to become enchanted with the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the world as it is is not as it always will be. Our world tells us peace and provision aren’t possible, that’s its too difficult, that it’s futile to even entertain it. Our world conspires to convince us to follow after the new shiny object as though it will make us happy. Our world says that we’ll never get along, that we’ll always need our weapons, be they bullets or words meant to pierce the depths of the soul. For generations, the primary story is that one group of people in power will rule another and that we need borders and aisles, anything to distinguish us from enemies and threats. We’ve believed to some extent that these messages are true, that there is a quick fix, or that resources are too scarce or we’ve got to look out for ourselves and our own. We’ve bought into fear, and though we find it in glimpses sometime, hope seems rather futile.
It takes a lot to ready ourselves to hear a different story.
This is why Advent practices are so important. One of the ways many churches prepare is by lighting an Advent wreath. While it’s a beautiful tradition in the life of the church, it is a beautiful tradition to build into our own daily Advent practices. So the invitation this day is to build a wreath for yourself, dedicate some time to lighting it daily, and to a bit of time for reflection and prayer.
On Sunday here in Decorah, we started Advent. Yes, I know it’s a week early, but we wanted an extra week. We taught folks about the symbol of the wreath and handed out packs of candles, bags of sand, and a calendar to help people journey through using the wreath each day. The design is simple: find a bowl, pour sand in the bottom, stick five candles in, and cover the sand with some evergreens. You’ll have a simple wreath. Folks were also invited to take a calendar so that they had daily prompts for reflection.
I invite you to the same. I hope you will grab some simple supplies, make a wreath, light it daily, and make space in your life to practice Advent. The calendar we are using is available to you as is a resource that explains a bit more about the meaning of the wreath. Adapt it to be what will be life giving (our church changed the order of the candles).
Friends, I hope that your Advent season is a beautiful and meaningful one,
—Laura Arnold, Program Support/Adjunct Lay Education and Pastor at Decorah UCC
(If you wish to download this blog story, just go to http://decorahucc.org/celebrating-advent/.