My niece, who is now about three and a half, loves berries. She has lots of berries growing at her house and enjoys picking them herself. When she was two, she didn’t really understand that she needed to wait until the berries ripened before eating them. She would get so excited to see the berries growing that she would pick them right away—while they were still green and sour. This past spring, when she saw the first strawberries growing from the plants she was given for her third birthday, my brother reminded her that they weren’t ripe yet and not to pick them; she replied, “It’s so hard to wait.”
Learning to wait is an important skill for a three-year old—and for everyone. But waiting doesn’t have to be a trial; it can be a meaningful experience in itself. Advent, the season before Christmas, is a time for waiting; it is a time when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ.
The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” and is the translation of the Greek word parousia, which was used to refer to the second coming of Christ in the New Testament. Phillip Pfatteicher, in his book Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year (2013), writes, “Since at least the time of Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Christians have spoken of the three comings of Christ: in the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time." Advent is a season that allows us the opportunity to reflect on all three.
It is easy to rush through Advent in anticipation of Christmas. In America, the secular Christmas season is usually Thanksgiving (or even Halloween) through Christmas Day—skipping right over Advent. In the Episcopal Church, Advent, the first season of the liturgical year, begins four Sundays before Christmas (this year, Advent starts on December 3) and goes through Christmas Eve (December 24). The liturgical season of Christmas is celebrated during the twelve days between Christmas Day (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6).
It can be hard to find a balance between the secular, commercial celebration of Christmas and the religious holiday, but observing Advent can provide a helpful separation. Advent can bring a slowness and prayerfulness to a busy time of year. The season reminds us of the broader picture of why we are Christians (it’s not just about getting gifts at Christmas) and connects us to centuries of church traditions. In a world of instant search results, on-demand streaming, and guaranteed two-day deliveries, Advent can help us practice patience. And I find that observing Advent can make the awaited celebration of Christmas more special. Celebrating Advent does not mean that you have to ignore the Christmas parties, songs, and other festivities that take place in December; it just means that you are also aware of and take time to reflect on the theological basis of Christmas, the coming of God to humanity in human form.
There are a plethora of ideas and resources available about ways to incorporate Advent into your family’s traditions and celebrations if you choose. Below is a small selection of ways to observe Advent and to make the wait fun and meaningful for your family. I have not read or used all of these resources myself, nor have I been paid to mention them. I hope these ideas may inspire you to try something new or revive an old tradition this Advent season.
Devotions and Prayer
Many Christians use Advent as a time to renew habits that have fallen by the wayside or to adopt new practices into their daily lives. Early Christians treated the season of Advent a bit like Lent, as a season for penance, prayer, and fasting. And, in fact, Advent was at one point known as St. Martin’s Lent. Advent is also the beginning of the liturgical year, and like New Year’s and Lent, Advent can be a good time to make resolutions. One advantage Advent has over New Year’s and Lent is that it is a short period of time (four to five weeks), and, as such, provides an easy opportunity to incorporate new habits and routines, such as prayer or meditation, on a limited basis. (In the spirit of trying something new during Advent, be on the lookout for some different types of guest posts on the blog this season!)
Forward Moment, a ministry of the Episcopal Church, lists a number of Advent publications and devotional materials, in both English and Spanish: https://www.forwardmovement.org/ Products/CategoryCenter.aspx?categoryId=FMCHR
Let Every Heart Prepare is a book of meditations for Advent and Christmas based on poetry and hymns: https://www.churchpublishing.org/products/leteveryheartprepare
For a different type of meditation, try this coloring book, which includes a daily scripture for reflection: https://www.amazon.com/Coloring-Advent-Adult-Journey-Bethlehem/dp/0827203977
Today, one of the most common symbols of Advent is the Advent wreath. We, at St. Brendan’s, will light an Advent wreath each Sunday in church, but you can also make one with your family at home. Advent wreaths come in multitudes of styles and materials, from traditional wreaths of greenery, to kid-friendly paper wreaths with pretend candles, or even a living wreath skit! Have a green thumb? Why not try making an Advent prayer garden?
There are too many Advent wreath DIY’s to link to here, but here are some liturgies and prayers you can use while lighting your Advent wreath:
This post on BuildingFaith, a ministry of the Virginia Theological Seminary, gives a brief background on Advent wreaths and shares one interpretation of an Advent wreath lighting liturgy: https://www.buildfaith.org/advent-wreath-prayers-liturgy-church-home/#gref
Here a few other simple liturgies by ECF Vital Practices, a ministry of the Episcopal Church Foundation (scroll down to the bottom of the page to link to the PDFs): http://www.ecfvp.org/tools/210/advent-wreath-prayers-and-reflections
This blog post from Godspace shares a creative and family friendly series of Advent candle liturgies: http://godspacelight.com/2015/11/19/advent-candle-liturgy-emma-morgan/
Another well-known Advent tradition is the Advent calendar. There are lots of different types of Advent calendars available: traditional holiday scenes with little windows to open; calendars with toys, gifts, or sweets; and modern and stylish Advent calendars that are as much art pieces as they are calendars. You can also DIY or customize a calendar to suit your family’s own style and needs. Some calendars, instead of including gifts or chocolates for each day, include devotionals or activities. One of my favorite books as a little girl was Madeline L’Engle’s The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas, in which the family does one special activity each day leading up to Christmas.
As with Advent wreaths, there are countless ideas for DIY Advent calendars to match every skill level and style. Here are some ideas about things to include in an Advent calendar:
Here is a printable Advent devotional calendar from ECF Vital Practices: http://www.ecfvp.org/tools/233/2017-advent-devotional-calendar
This blogger made a “reverse Advent calendar” by filling empty wine boxes with food to donate to their local food pantry: http://30dayadventures.ca/create-a-reverse-advent-calendar-that-gives-back/
For a contemplative Advent calendar, check out this Celtic Advent calendar, which runs from November 15 through Epiphany: http://contemplativecottage.com/category/celtic-advent/
Finally, here are a few additional Advent resources worth checking out:
We wait for Christmas; we wait for the coming (again) of Christ, but we need not wait passively. We can wait actively. We can prepare. This year my niece planted her own little patch of strawberries, which she was responsible for tending. She still found it “so hard to wait,” but she learned to wait actively by caring for the growing plants. And she found the wait was worth it, being rewarded by the taste of juicy ripe strawberries. Our Advent wait will come to an end in our joyous celebration of Christmas Day. And Christmas Day joy will be more complete if we wait actively and reflectively.
Grace and peace,
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A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please consider it my error and let me know! If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for future blog posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.