With Advent over halfway through, I have as always, succumbed to the busyness of the season. I have, however, over the past few years been delving deeper into the purpose of Advent; that of preparation for the celebration of Christmas, not just physically, but spiritually too.
Advent means “arrival” or “coming”. It’s purpose is to Christmas, a little like Lent is to Easter. The fast before the feast. It’s more than just a lead up to Christmas. It’s a different season. A time to reflect, repent, prepare. A time to pause for breath. A time to slow down, to be still. There is, I think, a tension between the now and the not yet. We live in a very broken world, where we know pain, suffering and sin on a daily basis. And yet, because of what Jesus did by coming into this world, dying and rising again, we can also know Him with us in that brokenness, in our day to day struggles.
I liked the following dream, given by a guest on Sally Clarkson’s podcast, embellished by myself. Of two women, sitting on a bus on their way home. The wipers are working hard, swishing away the rain falling out of a wintry black sky. Their shopping bags are full, and their feet tired. It’s the end of November. They are weary to their bones. One says to the other “I’m so glad it’s December soon. The shops will close early, the lights will be dimmed, we will all have more time to rest. More time at home with the family. I’ll be ready for Christmas when it arrives.” This seems as fanciful as Alice falling through a rabbit hole into a strange new land…but unlike that, I sense a longing in my spirit to be a part of this dream.
Not all of it though. If I’m honest, I love the build up to Christmas. Starting with a visit to the library in early December, to gather together our first stash of Christmas books. Then unearthing and hanging up of our advent calendars, decorating our house, rediscovering treasured ornaments made by tiny hands which I just can’t bear to part with, baking, hot chocolate, parties, outings, carol concerts. And the bubbling excitement in children’s hearts and eyes.
But, how can we incorporate some of the essence of Advent into our whirlwind lives? As a family, we try to read an Advent book each year. It’s been harder this time with both boys at college and numerous evening activities, but we do it when we can. I’m reading “The Jesse Tree” again with the girls, and altogether we are reading “A Jesus Christmas” by Barbara Reaoch.
We have an advent wreath on our table. The candles represent hope, peace, joy and love and we light one on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The first two weeks are a time to acknowledge the brokenness of this world, and look forward towards Christ’s second coming when finally there will be an end of pain and suffering. The second two weeks look back to Jesus’ birth and all he has already done through his death and resurrection.
I tend to leave the full on Christmas music till later in December, and listen to quieter, older carols, Celtic melodies, recent Christian Christmas songs and of course Handel’s Messiah, a favourite. We decorate the tree halfway though Advent (we left it till Christmas Eve as a child), not only for us to enjoy, but also to welcome all the many visitors we have passing through our home. But this year we will wait till Christmas Eve to put the star on the top. This is because we need to make a new one (!) but I think it could become a new tradition. Equally, we will wait till Christmas Day to settle baby Jesus in the manger of our Nativity scene.
We also have a little jar filled with lollipop sticks reminding us to be thankful, or promting us to do something to bring a smile to someone else.
And as for me? I too have a set of Advent readings I use in my Quiet Times. Something different each year. I light my red, scented candle at least once a day, and just “Be still and know that He is God”. Or, I sit in my rocking chair in the morning with a cup of tea, enjoying the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree and watching the sky turn from wintry black to its daytime hue. These are not overtly productive times; I lay aside my prayer lists. But they are essential to my sanity. They are, I think, what help me to arrive at Christmas Day a little less frazzled than I would otherwise be, and with a greater appreciation of the true meaning of Christmas.