My friend Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence and I recently wrote an article about Advent. A shortened version just appeared in the November/December issue of Today’s Christian Woman magazine. Below is the full article. We hope you like it!
The Adventure of Advent: 10 Easy Ideas for Transforming the Season
(Joy-Elizabeth) What’s on your Christmas to-do list? As a self-described over-achiever, here’s some things I’ve had on my list in preparation for Christmases past:
- Unpack, organize, and artistically arrange 5 boxes of Christmas decorations. Buy fresh greenery from the farmer’s market. Put candles everywhere.
- Cut a conical fir in a snowy farm somewhere up north, then put it up peacefully with my husband Justin while listening to traditional Christmas music and eating homemade treats.
- Bake mini-loaves of sweetbread, chocolate sandwich cookies with mint filling, and those mini pecan pies. Deliver the treats to my entire block (while caroling), bring some to all my co-workers, and ship a box or two to relatives who live outside the country.
- Lose 5 pounds so I don’t have bra bulge under the festive red dress I still have to buy.
- Think of and select That Perfect Gift that lights up Justin’s eyes with That Look of Love
- Write a terrific, newsy holiday letter that won’t bore anyone and enclose that picture of me (in the red dress) and Justin after I gave him That Perfect Gift.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? But in the past few years I’ve been discovering the lost tradition of Advent, which makes my list about as useful as a piece of kindling. Here’s the secret: Advent isn’t “pre-Christmas.” It’s not about perfection, it’s about waiting. It’s not about light yet, it’s about darkness. It’s not about me and bra bulge, or impressing people with my baking skills or superb prosaic form letters. It’s not even about the birth of Christ (yet), but it’s about our need, as human beings, to be redeemed, to be made whole. It’s about waiting for Jesus right now-waiting for Him to come again as He promised. And once I started to learn this about Advent, I gave up my fight with The List.
Like many Christian practices, Advent holds multiple meanings. We are waiting for Christ’s return. We remember the Hebrew people who waited for the Messiah, Jesus. We remember Mary’s wait (and weight, I suppose), as she expected her mysterious first-born son. We remember what John the Baptist said in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord! John’s cry is pertinent to both stories-he announces Christ then and now. Advent is an observance of eschatological hope-hope for the future. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, Advent corresponds with some of the darkest and dreariest days of the year. But as the sun grows, we celebrate the son who came to redeem the world.
Most of us don’t like darkness. We like light and happy songs; we don’t like shadows or dirges. But how can we celebrate light if we have never experienced darkness? How can we rejoice if we have not thought about sin or shame? How can we be saved if we do not know we are in danger? Advent also teaches us to wait. We wait to celebrate. We wait for Jesus to return. This waiting in Advent has traditionally been associated with abstinence from foods or other pleasures so that Christians may better focus on prayer and reflection on the hope of Christ. Finally, Advent is a time of preparation. During Advent, we ready our hearts for Christ.
Sometimes, when I start discussing Advent with people who’ve never observed it before, there’s genuine and significant concern about putting one’s family into shock-especially if traditions in December are centered around Christmas. But there’s no need to throw out all your rituals and alienate yourself from others. Instead, discuss the spiritual significance of Advent with family members and invite them on the journey with you. Consider moving Christmas traditions to Christmas day and the eleven days that follow. What you’ll be doing is extending-not short-changing-the season.
This winter, embrace a few simple practices and observances that will prepare your heart and mind for twelve days of big celebration that begin-not end-on December 25. Advent is always observed four Sundays before Christmas. This year, it begins on December 2. Along with traditional activities like an Advent wreath or calendar, here are 10 creative ways you can grow spiritually during the Advent season.
1. Mark Mary and Joseph’s Journey
Set up your Nativity scene by gathering the animals around the manger. Then place Mary and Joseph in the farthest spot possible from “Bethlehem,” such as your bedroom closet or a shelf in the garage. Daily move Mary and Joseph closer to the Nativity scene throughout Advent until they arrive at “Bethlehem” Christmas Eve. If you have children, they’ll love inching Mary and Joseph closer each day via the toy box, the piano, and the kitchen cabinets! Remember to keep baby Jesus stowed away until Christmas morning.
2. Hum a New Tune
This may be a tough one for those of you have “Away in a Manger” as the constant soundtrack through the entire month of December, but it’s worth trying! Choose to wait until Christmas to listen to Christmas music (and when the 25th comes, belt out your favorite carols with all your heart!). Instead, make a CD or playlist with songs appropriate for Advent.
Don’t know any Advent songs? Check out http://www.cyberhymnal.org and click on “Advent” under the topics search option.
3. Darken Your Dinners
Transform your family meals by turning off all electric lights during dinner. Begin each meal with John 1:9, then eat by candlelight and use the experience to think about the darkness of life without Christ. Discuss what it means to wait for Jesus, the light of the world. To observe the Advent fast, you may also choose to eat simple meals during Advent meals as a way to focus on waiting for the Christmas feast.
4. Replace Cookies with Candles
In lieu of baking and delivering Christmas cookies to neighbors, friends, and co-workers during early December, give candles as small gifts instead. Wrap votive candles in small squares of taffeta, tie with a ribbon, then affix notes with the text of Isaiah 9:2 and John 1:9 printed on them. If friends are curious about your unique gift, talk honestly about the light Jesus has brought into your life.
5. Try a New Type of Tree
Instead of putting up your Christmas tree the Friday after Thanksgiving, consider having a Jesse tree instead. The idea of a Jesse tree is derived from Isaiah 11:1-a prophecy about Jesus that says “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” A Jesse tree is traditionally a bare branch or houseplant decorated with ornaments that remind us of stories from the Old Testament and people who went before Jesus.
Don’t think you have to go out and buy new ornaments! I (Joy) made a Jesse tree with some of the ornaments I already had in my collection: apples to represent Adam and original sin; animals and plants to remember God’s creation; a harp to represent David; even a lobster to represent Old Testament dietary laws (you can get really creative here)! You can also make your own ornaments to represent Old Testament stories, such as a rainbow, big fish, altars, and a coat of many colors. And as you wait a bit to put up your traditional tree, you can also intentionally put up your other Christmas decorations a little at a time, while you wait for Christmas morning.
Creatively reflect on the story of Zechariah (found in Luke 1:5-79). What was it like for him to wait in silence as he pondered the amazing news that the Messiah was coming? Set aside one morning in which you can take a vow of silence; for a few hours commit to keep your mouth shut and communicate only with God through quiet prayers and a listening heart. Focus on and enjoy God’s presence.
7. Wait to Open Presents
This is difficult, especially if your family has regularly exchanged gifts before Christmas, but by waiting for Christmas (or even the 11 days afterwards) you can truly experience what it means to wait. If you receive a gift from someone, politely say, “Thank you! I will wait until Christmas to open this, if that’s OK.” By waiting to open gifts, you can focus on the meaning of Advent and wait for Christmas to enjoy the symbolic meaning of gift-giving and receiving.
8. Knead, Shape, and Wait
Get up early one morning to make homemade yeast bread. As you wait for the dough to rise, quietly contemplate what it might have been like for those who were waiting for the Messiah to be born. Consider what it means for you to wait and watch for Christ’s Second Coming. (If you have kids, invite them to help you make cinnamon rolls with the yeast dough.)
9. Make the Common Uncommon
Transform plain, old tin cans into beautiful outdoor luminaries with your spouse or older children. First remove the label and wash any size tin can. Fill the can with water, leaving about ½ an inch at the top, then put the can in the freezer overnight. The next day, draw an Advent-themed design on a piece of paper, such as a star or an angel. Tape the paper to the can of frozen water, then use a hammer and nail to transfer the design to the can by pounding small holes into the tin. When the ice melts, you will have a lovely recycled can luminary! Place a lit candle inside each one and set them on your front door step at night. Use this project to think about the redemptive wonder of the incarnation-the Light of the universe, carried as a babe in the womb of a common girl.
10. Pray, Ponder, and be Poetic
Purchase a blank journal that you can use every Advent. Each day, write a prayer or poem that explores important Advent themes like darkness, waiting, hope, and light. Bring your journal out each Advent season; spend time each year reading the reflections already recorded there.
(Kelli) I’ve got wonderful childhood memories of gathering with my family around an Advent wreath, lighting candles, and reading from the Bible together. But somehow, once I was out of the house and on my own, those Advent traditions faded from view. Like many of you, my Decembers quickly filled with parties, buying, decorating, and lots of good intentions to focus on the meaning of the season-intentions that always get crowded out by jingling bells, gift receipts, and wrapping paper.
A few years ago I decided to start observing Advent simply…really simply. I didn’t change much of my routine-I just began daily singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” And I kicked my latest favorite novel off the nightstand to read Waiting for Jesus (an Advent devotional) by Walter Wangerin Jr. instead. Day by day my heart’s focus was transformed. My spirit began to long for Jesus and my feelings of anticipation for Christmas morning grew and grew. On December 25th that year, I was able to celebrate Jesus’ birth-Emmanuel’s coming-with a deep, fulfilling joy. And I determined to never let Advent slip by unnoticed again.
Our Advent family traditions seem to morph year to year. Once I attempted homemade pies for each Sunday evening (I’ll spare you the laughable details). Another time we had nightly puppet shows with our kids, using stuffed animals (memorably including a hyper-annoying musical turtle) to play the roles of Bible characters. This year we’ll also decorate a Jesse tree.
The point here isn’t to replace pre-Christmas chaos with the stress and frenzy of 10 elaborate Advent observances. Instead, you can choose your own Advent adventure by picking one or two things you’ll do to infuse the four weeks before Christmas with meaningful observances, lasting family traditions, and most importantly, growing intimacy with God.
Try a new to-do list this December. How about…
1. Slow down and breathe
2. Wait for Jesus with eager anticipation
3. Truly celebrate Christmas and what it means…when it comes!
© Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence and Kelli Blahnik Trujillo, 2007
Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence and I have been friends for fifteen years. Joy lives with her husband in Michigan, works at Calvin College, and enjoys freelance writing. You can contact Joy-Elizabeth at firstname.lastname@example.org