Advent: Awaiting the Light
I was asked to share about my Advent practices at our church’s soup supper on Nov. 12, as we all begin preparing the way for the Advent season. The content I shared during that time follows below, along with a list of resources that Haley and I drew together. We hope these ideas might inspire you as you prepare your own homes and families for the season.
One of the things that I particularly like about Advent is beginning a new church year, when we return to the starting point of our liturgical cycle. We await the birth of Jesus, but we also have a fresh beginning. The frenetic Deck-the-Halls mode of our culture at this time of year can feel both excessive and rather empty. Partly for that reason, I have moved toward a quieter Advent in recent years.
To that end, I have been trying to surround myself with symbols that remind me of inward or spiritual realities, things that can simply be present as I am going about my daily routines – without creating pressure to conjure feelings of amazement, gravity, or magic for the season. I have been drawn toward things that remind me of what is truly real and that the “not yet” will be worth it upon the arrival of Jesus, when all things are redeemed and restored. My rule of thumb for these practices is that it has to feel delightful or life-giving: No matter how fun something seems in theory, if it feels overwhelming in any way, then I try to hold off on doing it until some other year. After all, part of the goal is to make things less busy and less frantic as we draw near to God, not to add to the froth. I also try not to do too many things; I find it helpful to do a few things that I can focus on each year, but not every idea at once on any given year.
For the last several years, I have had a progressive creche, or nativity, in my living room. I start with an empty stable and manger at the beginning of Advent. Then each day or week, I add a few figures: animals, shepherds, angels…midwives. Usually I try to integrate adding the new figures into my prayer time that day; for example, I include some nativity figures that represent people I regularly pray for, such as my niece and my goddaughter, as a way to bring them into my waiting for the arrival of Jesus. I like this nonverbal way of waiting upon God for them. Sometimes I add a figure that represents a quality I want God to cultivate in me. On Dec. 23, Mary and Joseph arrive with a donkey. Then baby Jesus is placed in the manger on Christmas Eve, either at bedtime or at midnight. The Magi and their camels begin their journey on the bureau in my back bedroom, and I slowly move them closer during Advent until they arrive at the stable in my living room on Epiphany, Jan. 6. The whole process is so easy to do, and I get a real kick out of doing it; I love seeing the slow motion drama unfold every time I walk by.
Another little joy I did last year was to plant an amaryllis bulb in my kitchen. I put it in a clear glass hurricane vase so that I could see the layers of dirt and plant while I was sitting at my kitchen table. I could see the roots as they were forming, even before the first shoots and leaves popped above the surface. This was a really lovely metaphor for watching and waiting in the dark of Advent, and then marveling at the glory that bursts open when the flower blooms as a gift for Christmas. Last year, the amaryllis bloom turned out to be huge and incredibly beautiful, but it didn’t actually bloom until the middle of Lent; it seemed like God’s little liturgical joke for me at the time. This year I’ll need to start the bulb earlier. Lots of stores sell bulbs and kits at this time of year specifically for this tradition.
I also love the Advent wreath tradition. When I get home from work on December evenings, darkness has already fallen outside and inside. Usually I put my Advent wreath on the coffee table in my living room. Last year, I would light the candles on the wreath and play “Gladdening Light” by the Imago Dei community, a song version of the Phos Hilaron (Oh Gladsome Light, from the daily office of Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer). The song grew to become my ambient theme for the whole season. I would come home after a long day and think, “Time to queue up the Phos Hilaron!” I would light the candles, and it became my time to decompress.
My other favorite thing to do with the Advent wreath relates to its end on Epiphany. After each of the four weeks of Advent have burned the taper candles low and the Christ candle has been lighted on each of the 12 days of Christmas, I take the wreath greens and burn them in the fireplace on Epiphany. What a beautiful experience it is to watch the physical remains of the hope and waiting from Advent be converted into manifest glory in the flames. It feels like the incarnation of God really is revealed, burning brightly, in those moments. Some year soon, I would love to do this on a larger scale. If several people brought their Christmas trees together on Epiphany, we could have a have a jolly bonfire celebrating that “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2).
I don’t usually do a Christmas tree, but there are so many ways to make it a liturgical symbol. One year, I decorated my tree with a layer of white lights and a layer of purple lights, which I left plain for Advent. Then on Christmas Eve, the purple lights came off, symbolizing the end of the season of waiting and preparing. Christmas ornaments went on for the twelve days of Christmas. Then on Epiphany, the ornaments came off, and the tree wore silver and gold stars to represent the glory and incarnation of God being revealed. This whole process ended up being more labor-intensive than I had planned, so it is not something I would repeat every year. This and many other ideas I have used come from Sybil MacBeth’s book The Season of the Nativity. The book is crammed full of ideas for family-friendly ways to do Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.
In the last several years, I have used a number of books for daily Advent & Christmas readings. If you have not read God With Us from Paraclete Press, it is sumptuous: full of colorful art, explanations of feasts and traditions, and poignant reflections. For 2017, I am planning to read through Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Malcolm Guite. The author is an Anglican priest and poet living in Great Britain, and his poems always seem to feel both grounded in liturgy and a new deep breath. Even without the book, you can follow along on his blog at https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/blog/, where he posts each poem over the course of the season with an audio clip of the poem.
I have also really enjoyed the Year of Grace liturgical calendar. This is a colorful poster updated with a circular version of the church calendar every year, complete with artwork. On the back of the poster, there is an explanation of the church year and how to use the calendar.
These ideas Haley and I have shared are just a few possibilities. We have a congregation rich in background and different traditions, so I’m sure many of you have all kinds of other things that you do with your families during Advent. I would encourage you all to share with each other about your own Advent practices. I would love to hear about your ideas and traditions, and I pray that God will give you joy and wonder as you prepare.
Advent, Christmas, & Epiphany Resources
The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Extremist. Author/Publisher: Sybil MacBeth (2014), Paraclete Press. Content: Packed full of artsy, kid-friendly, fun ideas to make the season both liturgical & joyful.
God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas. Author/Publisher: Edited by Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe (2007), Paraclete Press. Content: Beautiful, colorful book of readings and paintings for each week of Advent, each of the 12 days of Christmas, and each of the season’s Feast Days. Contributions from Scott Cairns, Emilie Griffin, Richard John Neuhaus, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson, and Luci Shaw.
Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Author/Publisher: Malcolm Guite (2015), Canterbury Press Norwich. Content: daily reflections from an Anglican priest/poet in Great Britain. To follow along with his poems throughout Advent, including a corresponding audio clip of the author reading the poems aloud, go to https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/blog/
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Author/Publisher: (2001) Plough Publishing House. Content: 40 daily readings from a wide variety of authors including Henri Nouwen, Thomas Aquinas, Madeleine L’Engle, Dorothy Day, Annie Dillard, Soren Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton, T.S. Eliot, and John Donne.
Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Author/Publisher: Compiled by Sarah Arthur (2014), Paraclete Press. Content: Readings from a wide range of poets and authors, both traditional and contemporary.
Give Me the Word: Advent and Other Poems 2000-2015. Author/Publisher: Laura Merzig Fabrycky (2015), Saar River Press. Content: Reflective poems related to Advent and beyond.
Lively Hope: An Advent Story. Author/Publisher: Jennifer Asp and Melody Villars (2016), Westbow Press. Content: A children’s story for Advent in the context of God’s greater story of redemption.
Advent For Everyone: A Journey Through Matthew. Author/Publisher: N.T. Wright (2016), SPCK Publishing. Content: Daily inspirational readings for Advent.
Advent For Everyone: A Journey With the Apostles. Author/Publisher: N.T. Wright (2017), Presbyterian Publishing. Content: Daily inspirational readings for Advent.
Let Us Keep the Feast: Living the Church Year at Home. Author/Publisher: Jessica Snell (2014), Doulos Resources. Content: Guide for bringing the liturgical calendar into daily life.
O Antiphons ornaments and devotional from Jesse Tree Treasures on Etsy: www.etsy.com/shop/JesseTreeTreasures
Gladdening Light (2014 Advent EP) – Imago Dei Music – available on Apple Music, Spotify, and Noisetrade.
Waiting Songs (2015) – Rain For Roots – Advent music for children – available on Apple Music/iTunes, streaming included with Amazon Prime
Behold the Lamb of God (2009) – Andrew Peterson – available on Apple Music/iTunes and Amazon
Find Haley’s Advent and Revelation playlists on Spotify by searching for Haley Scharf
Visual Liturgical/Church Year Calendars:
Year of Grace 2018 (Laminated Poster) – Available from various sources online.
Christian Seasons Calendar: christiancalendar.squarespace.com
Liturgical Calendar and Circle Print from Modern Liturgic: www.modernliturgic.com