by Amanda Gerber, Fellow IACer, seeking to understand the Christian seasons and bring them into daily life
photos by Michelle Weed
You walk into church in early December and at first, everything seems pretty normal. But as the service goes on, you start to realize that something is… different. The clergy are wearing purple. The liturgy has changed. We’re not singing the usual songs. And why did the pastor just say, “Happy New Year?”
The season of Advent has arrived, but it’s not the same countdown-to-Christmas/eat chocolate/build Legos/Elf On the Shelf Advent that has become trendy in our culture. It’s not an extension of Christmas time. It’s an entire season of its own, and it’s not just for Sunday mornings. Let’s walk through what the season of Advent is intended to be — and how we can bring the beauty and riches of Advent spirituality into daily life.
What is Advent?
The word advent means “coming” or “arrival.” We typically think of Christ’s birth, but the observance of Advent actually points to and causes us to reflect on three arrivals: Christ’s first arrival in Bethlehem, His second coming in the future that we anticipate, and His arrival in each of our hearts personally. In a sense we are always living in Advent, in a time of expectant waiting. The season of Advent invites us to press into this even more deeply.
The purpose of Advent is to remember that salvation is coming and has come. It’s a time of waiting, reflecting, contemplation, repentance, longing, and, in the midst of all these (and most importantly), hope. It’s light breaking into darkness.
Sometimes Advent is called “Little Lent” because of the tone of the season, which is a little more somber, held back, and reserved. In today’s day and age, we tend to want to skip straight to the party without pausing to remember why we’re celebrating. Advent reminds us that we are a people of promise in a world of impatience. It helps us pause by reminding us of the condition of our hearts before God and why we so desperately needed Him to come as He did. It gives us space to long for and prepare for Him to come again to bring the final restoration of all things. Just as the song says: “Let every heart prepare Him room.”
Traditionally the first two weeks point toward Christ’s second coming, and the last two weeks are oriented toward waiting for the celebration of His birth/incarnation. This waiting and anticipation is joyful but isn’t full-out celebration yet. That’s reserved for the full twelve days of Christmas. A good way to remember it is that if Advent is rhythm, Christmas is revelry.
The Christian Calendar
Where did this Advent idea even come from? Some of you at IAC are veterans of these liturgical seasons while others may be new to the Anglican tradition and haven’t yet experienced the Christian year at IAC. The Christian calendar orders time differently than the world does, and tells a different story, beginning with Advent. Unlike the calendar we typically follow, the Christian year doesn’t begin on January 1, but on the first day of Advent (December 3 this year!). After Advent comes the Twelve Days of Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and finally Pentecost. The rest of the year is “Ordinary Time,” the time that’s now coming to a close this year.
The way we mark time says something about what we value most, and says something too about the story we’re a part of. The Christian calendar is both unique and universally applicable to Christ-followers all over the world. The purpose of the Christian or liturgical calendar is to order our physical and spiritual lives around an alternative narrative. God’s story is too much for us to take in all at once, and sometimes we lose sight of the big story we’re part of. If you were here for “gospel-shaped Sunday” you heard how each part of the service walks us through a different part of that narrative. And likewise the Christian seasons walk us through the different acts of the story and immerse us in it one bit at a time, forming us in grace, prompting us to center our lives around Christ, reminding us of what He’s done for us. We live in the tension of that act between Redemption and Restoration. A kingdom that is now, but not yet. As we walk through each of the Christian seasons, we reenact the story He’s written and is still writing.
At a church like IAC we are blessed to be immersed in and shaped by this beautiful story week after week on Sunday mornings. But what about the rest of the week? How are our day-to-day traditions and liturgies, and specifically Advent and Christmas traditions, shaping our hearts and rooting us in the gospel story?
A lot of our culture’s liturgies and traditions don’t do a great of a job of orienting our hearts back to God. I think it’s more important than ever for Christians to have compelling ways to draw ourselves (and especially our kids) deeper into God’s story — the key word here being compelling! Often our traditions are imitations of culture with a little Jesus thrown in. Is that really that compelling, or is it just confusing? Are we playing in the shallow waters while we could be exploring the depths of the ocean?
I felt led to write all this down in part because of my own experiences. This journey of discovering Advent, as well as the rest of the Christian seasons, is one our family (my husband Nicholas and I, and our three young kids) has been on for a few years now. Our kids can’t wait to start our daily tea-times again (which I explain below). Little did I know how much this would bless our family and shape my understanding of the gospel. Advent really has become a time of slowing down and being intentional, and we’ve cherished Christmas all the more. It’s also helped us feel like our daily lives are more connected to Sunday worship.
Lest I’ve painted a picture-perfect view of what this all looks like in our family, I should probably also point out that Advent includes the very normal and unpleasant parts of life too. The bad moods, waking up too late and rushing to work, kids spilling tea everywhere, getting days behind on the Jesse tree, you know — life. And let’s just say that “devo-time meltdowns” are very real things, and it’s not just the kids. I’m sure some of you can identify. Thankfully we’re not aiming for perfection.
Advent, An Opportunity
Without realizing it, I think for many of us Advent can end up looking a whole lot like Christmas. There may be nothing particularly wrong with that, but sometimes I find myself tired of Christmas once it actually arrives. On the other hand, sometimes December 26 is a huge letdown. Observing Advent and only then Christmas brings a more natural cycle of waiting and anticipating followed by a full twelve-day celebration. The hope is that if we truly observe Advent, we will love Christmas even more.
In light of that, you might try waiting a little longer to put up decorations or decorating a little at a time. Perhaps you might not put ornaments on your tree until Christmas Eve (as they do in some European countries). Listen to and sing Advent songs but wait to sing the jubilant Christmas carols until Christmas Day. Consider holding off on some of your usual traditions of cookie baking and favorite Christmas movies until the twelve days of Christmas.
Here are some more ideas and resources for bringing Advent into your daily rhythms and routines.
- The Daily Office: Advent is a great opportunity bring back the ancient practice of the daily office, from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). If you read the additional BCP Scripture, it coincides with the themes of Advent. It’s short enough that all ages can join in. If nothing else, do this! Pastor Ken recently wrote a blog post on praying the hours that explains this more fully, and I highly, highly recommend it!
- Advent wreath: As you light the candles each day or each week, let it remind you of the ever-increasing light as your hope builds in anticipation of Christmastide. Pastor Christy has even made an Advent wreath for each family that she’ll be giving out tomorrow at church, so if you don’t own one: no worries!
- Pace: Push back on the busyness and say no to things that aren’t life-giving to you or your family. Embrace that spiritual discipline of intentional waiting. “Trust in the slow work of God.”
- Serving: Don’t say no to things just for your own sake. Look outside the walls of your house: Advent practices have always included giving, serving, and reaching out to the poor and needy. How can we be intentional in sharing the abundance God has given us?
- Jesse Tree: A Jesse tree is a fun Advent tradition that is great for younger children since it’s so hands-on.
- The Advent Jesse Tree by Dean Lambert Smith has short simple devotions for both adults and children that walk you through the story leading up to the birth of Emmanuel.
- Ann Voskamp’s book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift also coincides with a Jesse tree. The writing is a little more flowery in its style but may capture the attention of older children.
- Here’s an entirely online Jesse Tree with printable ornaments that could be modified for this year.
- Advent Devotionals and Activities: There are a plethora of other great Advent resources out there! A couple of recommendations:
- Music: Sometimes somber, mysterious, lamentful, minor-key music (like some of the songs here) speaks to our hearts in a different but welcome way than joyful carols do.
- Advent hymns and carols to sing: O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Of the Father’s Love Begotten, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, Joy To the World.
- Spotify has some good Advent playlists — some that are oriented solely toward Advent rather than including Christmas music. Try a playlist called Advent 24, “Midwinter Carols” by Joel Clarkson, or Simple Advent, a playlist by Tsh Oxenreider.
- Beauty: Whether in song, word, visual art, or nature, there is beauty that beckons us to behold it, and our souls need this. Take time to really see, taste, and listen. Biola University has an Advent Project blog with daily postings of art and music that I’m hoping to check out this year. There are more good writing, music, and art suggestions here.
- Calendar: Buy a wall calendar that is divided into pages that correlate with each liturgical season, to remind you that we don’t mark time as the world marks time.
- Advent countdown: Use an Advent calendar or some other countdown that fosters togetherness and community. Our family’s favorite Advent tradition is drinking a different tea each day. You can’t rush through a cup of tea and it invites reflection and a slower pace. Or if it’s chocolate you prefer, why not choose some good quality chocolate and take time to really savor it.
- Nativity: Wait to add baby Jesus to the nativity until Christmas morning. (Bonus points if you hide the magi away until Epiphany!)
- Fasting: Some people choose to do a short time of fasting reminiscent of Lent.
- Habits: Consider getting up half an hour earlier than usual during Advent to spend some extra time reflecting, reading, praying, and journaling. Maybe even take a half-day retreat.
- Confession: Confess your sins.
- Write them out, and allow yourself to feel the magnitude and weight of them.
- Ask God to break in and work in your life. Don’t forget to remind yourself of the forgiveness we’ve already been given. “May the Father of all mercies cleanse us from our sins, and restore us in his image, to the praise and glory of his name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”
- This is a great activity to do alone or as a family.
- Consider doing a formal confession time with one of the clergy at IAC. This can be really powerful.
- Gifts: Simplify gift-giving and don’t get caught up in the stress and consumerism that this time of year often brings.
You can add to this list anything else that shapes your heart to prepare for the coming of Christ and causes you to recognize your spiritual apathy and return to true worship. Be creative and see what you can come up with.
Advent is a good excuse to slow down and say no to some things for the sake of better things. We all long for rest and a slower pace, but that won’t happen without intentionality. However, it would be of the greatest irony if reading this caused more stress or burden in your life! Start where you are and start small. Maybe this Advent thing is new to you. What’s one thing you can change this year? One rhythm you can add? We have total freedom here — it’s a “get to,” not a “have to.” And there are lots of great ideas but no prescription for how exactly to go about it. Remember, this isn’t a to-do list; it’s an invitation to something rich and beautiful.
A Note on the Physical World
What I’ve written might feel like an admonition to pull back from normal life and focus on something more “spiritual” or “holy.” But on the contrary, it’s right in the midst of our everyday, ordinary, physical lives that Advent happens. As Christians, we rightly push back on the consumerism and materialism that have come to mark this time of year, but sometimes we do it to our own detriment. As part of downplaying material possessions, we can hyper-spiritualize things, treating the physical world as a distraction from what’s “really important.” But consider the true meaning of this season: God incarnate, the Word made flesh. Spirit and flesh united forever.
This physical world, and what we do with our bodies, and what we eat and look at and listen to and experience, matters. Beauty matters. Kneeling to pray, lighting candles, listening to beautiful music, and lingering at the table over delicious food that nourishes both our bodies and souls matter. The things we do with our bodies and experience with our senses are powerful to help us understand God’s ways and shape what we love. How we feel about Advent and Christmas, and what we experience, is just as important as what we know.
One More Thought
As we ponder this Advent arrival and what it means to be ready, we may see the sin and mess of our lives. We may start to think of the things we need to make right — how we need to make our hearts right before God. But if this is something we could do on our own, then we wouldn’t need rescuing. This is the gospel in Advent. We have no more capacity and ability to change and clean up our hearts than we do to make the sun rise. But we wait with expectancy that the sun will rise, that Christ will come. Our job is to stay awake.
Being ready doesn’t mean we’ve perfectly cleaned up our lives. Rather, we’re ready for a rescue — for the bridegroom to come and rescue us. The purpose of the spiritual disciplines of Advent, and of all spiritual disciplines, is to keep us awake. We wait with joyful anticipation and with full assurance that God will rescue us — full assurance that He will return to redeem everything. We want to be awake when the sun begins to rise. We look to that future day, but we also ask Him to break in on our lives, regularly. Light breaking into darkness. Come, Lord Jesus!
For Further Reading
- Ancient-Future Time by Robert E. Webber (All about the Christian year and why we do what we do.)
- You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith (A book about why our daily routines and habits matter and how they shape what we ultimately love.)
- Our Common Prayer: A Field Guide to the Book of Common Prayer by Winfield Bevins (a primer in the Book of Common Prayer with some great information, more tools for praying the hours, and beautiful ancient prayers)
- keepingadvent.com (has great explanations and resources)
- I highly recommend listening to Pastor Ken’s Advent sermon from last year.
There are many of you who are far more experienced in Advent than I am. Comment below with your favorite Advent traditions, books, resources, thoughts, etc. Let’s share the wealth!