Actually, Advent not a big deal. I mean it depends on what you think a big deal is. If you’re comparing it to the “big deals” of Christmas gifts to buy, Christmas events to attend, Christmas traditions to uphold… It is not that kind of a big deal. It is a wonderfully quiet, secretively radiant, anticipatory deal. It feels to me like the exact opposite of what usually feels like a “big deal.” And that has made it an even bigger deal to me.
I am still a newcomer to the liturgical calendar. Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost, Ordinary Time… I grew up in church, but not that kind of church. I haven’t really sought out these seasons; it seems as though I’ve just bumped into them and liked them instantly, like those encounters with a stranger where you leave thinking, “I bet we could be friends.”
Anyway, most of the people I know do not observe any sort of traditional Advent, and a lot of people ask me something to the effect of, “What’s the big deal about Advent?” So, abandoning thoroughness, here are a few of my humble thoughts.
What is Advent? Advent is the season that anticipates Jesus’ birth. Its traditional components are simple. (The following traditions are all a little bit different depending on which church’s calendar you use. I just thought I’d give you the bare bones, as I understand them.)
- Candles – traditionally three purple + one pink gathered around a white “Christ” candle, sometimes placed in a wreath. The candles are lit accumulatively at specific times throughout the season. Most people I know who celebrate Advent light them during dinner or during their daily reading time.
- Readings – traditionally found in The Book of Common Prayer and comprised of two morning Psalms, three daily readings, and two evening Psalms. They are on a two-year cycle and if you follow them, you will read the New Testament through twice and the Old Testament through once in two years.
- 4 weeks – beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Each week has a traditional theme – Hope, Peace, Joy, Love – in that order. (This year Advent began on December 2.)
There are a lot of things to love about Advent. Here are my top three right now.
- Anticipating. My oft critical mind and judgmental heart cannot sustain their criticism when steeped for weeks in the ridiculous idea that God became a baby and Mary pushed him out and her first visitors were a random group of salt-of-the-earth men from the sewage plant.*
- Secret. I feel like I’m in on one. One big secret that most people ahead of me in the Target line or sitting across from my booth in the restaurant aren’t even thinking about. Or maybe they are. Because it’s actually a very well-known secret, one almost everyone has heard. It is just one secret that has gotten old for some people and hasn’t really sunk in for others. Well, observing just a few simple Advent practices helps me let it sink in, more in and more in every year. Plus when you find someone else who practices a little bit of Advent – like the readings, for example – it’s delightful to think that you two read the exact same thing that morning, even if you already can’t really even remember it any more.
- Rootedness. I love the way that Advent tethers me to the Coming of God. My idea of time requires reorienting. The seasons, ordinarily defined only by observable changes in weather are now also reoriented to the life of Christ. I used to rush through life, hardly batting an eye at the ice, the crocuses, the blooming yucca, the crunching leaves, the ice, the crocuses, the blooming… Now I get to enjoy all of those things in the present while also feeling more rooted in the past realities of a baby God, a man on a cross, a man not in a grave, ordinary time, a baby God, a man on a… God comes to live in my present because God – Emmanuel: God has come to live with us – in the past.
Friends who practice something for Advent – share your thoughts below???
* I know, I know, it wasn’t the sewage plant, but I think that’s a very fair equivalent, don’t you? It might actually be too sterile a comparison – our sewage plant workers are much more sanitary than probably anyone back then, seeing as how in some places, their sewage plants were their streets. Yech.