Every year I have the best of intentions when it comes to observing Advent.
I try to do all the usual Advent things, but in the end I’m always left feeling dissatisfied. It feels busy, forced, and I certainly never manage to do much of anything that I had hoped to do anyway. And forget about waiting to decorate and indulge in Christmas music! Maybe I get hung up on the waiting, to which there is a certain amount of pain. But I think if we can manage to set aside what we assume the month of December should look like, we find something rich and not so exhausting as we thought. I’ve heard many say (mostly in reference to vacations) that the anticipation of exciting things is the best part. Although this certainly isn’t true when it comes to the miraculous birth of Christ, it is true that when we hurl ourselves into the arrival of the long awaited Jesus, we miss the opportunity to prepare and reflect.
Did you know that Advent is a time of fasting? It is similar to Lent in that regard, but different in that instead of focusing on our personal sin, we are more broadly contemplating the fallenness of all Creation. We read in Romans 8 that creation groans for renewal, and that we, too, wait eagerly for our adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. This is what Advent is about. It’s about waiting—anticipating—not only Christ’s birth, but it is a reminder that we are now waiting for Jesus to return again and rescue us from brokenness. When we skip Advent, the waiting, and jump straight to Christmas, the rejoicing and wondering, we miss a vital time of reflection on the fact that we are still waiting.
The difficulty here, I think, is that unless you have been steeped in church tradition for a long time (and even then I’m not so sure), Advent can seem like yet another stressor. It can feel foreign, and certainly less festive, and who wants that when all the world seems to be engaging in a month long feast of hot cocoa, Christmas cookies, and festive music? During the last month I’ve been thinking a lot about this important season, trying to identify ways that I can not only help our family observe Advent in more meaningful ways, but also how it can be a restful time and not wrought with lists and to-dos and late night online shopping marathons (the worst).
As I share with you our plans for the coming weeks of Advent and into Christmas, I would love to hear yours. What works for you, and what doesn’t? How has your church, your priest or pastor, or your family helped you understand and live well in these important seasons?
One hurdle we always jump in the week or so leading up to Christmas is travel. It’s difficult to keep up with our Advent readings when we uproot midway and stay with our parents for the remainder of Advent and Christmas. I realized that this shift makes it difficult for me to stay commited to any of our Advent plans, so this year I am aiming for simply some level of separation between Advent and Christmas. For us, this separation won’t last all the way up to December 25th, but for the weeks leading up to our travel we’re planning to hold off on Christmas music and movies, and will keep our baking reserved for feast days, eating simple meals between them. Decorating will unfold more slowly than in that past. We’re hoping that by delaying our purchase of a Christmas tree we’ll not only have a little time to settle into Advent before decorating, but that our Christmas tree won’t be quite so brittle when we return home for the last few days of Christmas.
So yes, we’ll be doing a lot of waiting, but I have a hunch that by hanging back a little we’ll have room for the things we want to add that will make Advent something we notice and savor. We’ll be reading daily from the Book of Common Prayer, as well as an Advent book or two. I hesitate to recommend anything as I’ve never tried any that we’re using this year, but I would love to hear your recommendations and perhaps others can learn in the comments from your suggestions!
I expect this intentionality will take shape even more in the coming years, but I am eager to make these few small changes.
And what about an Advent wreath? Honestly, I don’t know if it will happen (yet again). This is always difficult for me. My mom always gathered evergreens from the abundance of our woods and along the road. A beautiful arrangement was always the centerpiece of our Christmas table, and I long for that for our family as well. I keep looking for places to cut greenery, but central Texas flora confuses me. Additionally, advent candles are expensive, but I guess that’s mostly my fault since I stick pretty strictly to burning only beeswax or soy candles in our home. All that to say, an Advent wreath is in my dreams for this season, but even if it doesn’t take shape as a wreath with the correctly colored candles, we’ll find a way to light some sort of candle during our readings anyway.
My wish for us all is that Advent not be the arrival, but the slow working of things. May your plans shift around the season and may you feel peace in the waiting for our guest.
For those looking for more guidance in the how-to department, here are a couple sources I’ve enjoyed.
Haley from Carrots for Michaelmas has a fantastic list of liturgical ideas for December.
The Art of Simple: Simple Advent
Let us Keep the Feast: Living the Church Year at Home (Advent and Christmas) (An e-book copy costs only 99¢!)