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Some ideas for Observing Advent

November 25, 2011

This Sunday (November 27) is the first day of Advent and therefore the beginning of a new year in the Christian calendar. While many of us have heard of Advent, we are generally unaware of how to go about observing and celebrating this season apart from the madness of shopping for Christmas. In order to fully appreciate this season, it is helpful to have some understanding of Advent (See Theologia Ordinarius’ “A Theology of Advent” for a helpful interpretation of how Advent fits into the holiday season). Then, consider taking part in some of the practices below or developing your own ideas with the significance of Advent in mind.

1. The Color Purple

Advent, like Lent, is given the color purple in the traditional church calendar. In both cases the purple designates both suffering (think of the purple of bruising) and royalty, as purple has long been held as the color of kings in the West. In Lent, the emphasis is on the suffering of penance (that is, sorrow over one’s sins) while considering the approach of Good Friday, when Christ the King suffered the ultimate brutality for our sins. In Advent, however, the emphasis is upon the royal birth of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, on Christmas. There is suffering as well, as we consider the fallen and corrupted state of God’s good creation and groan as we await the return of Jesus even as the Israelites groaned awaiting the coming of their Messiah. Thus, the purple of Advent is not the purple of penance but the purple of hopeful expectation. Bearing this in mind, consider including purple in your decorations as your prepare expectantly for Christmas Day. Just as you have learned through ritual and tradition that red and green together mean Christmas season, so you can also learn to remember your coming King when you encounter Advent purple.

2. The Advent Wreath

One helpful tradition in observing Advent is that of making an Advent wreath. The Advent wreath is generally composed of mixed evergreen branches (especially pine branches and sprigs of holly) formed into a horizontal circle. Five candles are set within the circle: three purple, one rose, and one white. The candles are then lit one by one as each week of Advent progresses: the first purple candle on the first week of Advent, the second purple on the second week, the rose candle on the third week, the last purple candle on the final week, and finally the white candle on Christmas day.

The make-up of the wreath is rich in Christian symbolism. The evergreen branches represent the eternal life made available through Jesus and their circular form has no beginning or end, representing the eternal nature of God. If holly is included, its sharp points remind us of the crown of thorns that was placed upon the head of the King of Kings. The three purple candles remind us that we are in the expectant season of Advent. The rose candle is lit when we are halfway through Advent, and so its color is a mixture of the purple of expectancy and the pure white of Christmas Day as we rejoice at the approaching return of Christ. The white candle is lit on Christmas and reminds us not only of the purity of the infant Christ, but also reminds us that Christ is the Lord and Savior of all humans (because in the light spectrum, white light contains every other color). All of the candles together also remind us that Jesus is the light of the world, who breaks forth on Christmas Day.

Traditionally, the home Advent wreath is lit just before dinner to help remind all who gather for the meal of their coming King. If you have more questions about the Advent wreath, you might appreciate this helpful article.

3. The Dynamic Nativity Scene

Many Christian homes already contain a Nativity set, but these sets are often treated as a fixed scene in which nothing every happens. Those with children at home may find a more dynamic Nativity scene to be especially helpful in encouraging little ones to observe the season of Advent. Instead of setting up your Nativity scene all at once and leaving it in place, allow it to build up some anticipation. Place the manger and barn (along with any animals) in a prominent position within your house. At the other end of your home, set out Joseph and Mary on the first day of Advent, so that they may begin their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Move Joseph and Mary a little bit closer to “Bethlehem” (the manger scene) each day until they arrive on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, place the infant Jesus into the manger. The shepherds can arrive on Christmas or in the following days according to your discretion. On Christmas, though, start the wise men (Magi) out at another far corner of your home. They will come closer to the holy family each day until they arrive at the end of the twelve days of Christmas. This will put their arrival on January 6, also known as Epiphany, the day on which the Christian church celebrates both the visit of the wise men and the much-later baptism of Christ.

4. An Advent Fast

For many Western Christians, the concept of having “feast days” means very little because we feast on a regular basis. Compared to the diets of  most humans who have ever lived, the modern American (or European) diet is one of extravagance. Most people who read this article will never know what it means to not have enough food (and that is a good thing!). One of the best ways to celebrate a feast, though, is to stop feasting for a while beforehand. For this reason, I recommend observing an Advent fast. This fast is not to be the same kind normally undertaken for a day of prayer (no eating) or during Lent (in which fasting from certain things is encouraged as a spiritual discipline). It should instead be in accordance with Advent as a fast of expectation.

For an Advent fast, I suggest keeping what might be called a poverty diet. The average person in the developing world (and the average person throughout history) has not had access to large amounts of meat, sugar, or luxury items. Instead, for most people, a normal diet consists largely of grains and vegetables (this makes sense when you consider that 80% of humans alive live on less than $1o US a day). For many of these people, asking God to “give us today our daily bread” is of obviously vital importance, and the promise of a banquet table in the Kingdom of God is cause for hopeful anticipation.

In order to enter into the experience of the majority of our brothers and sisters and to truly anticipate the feast at Christ’s table, we would do well to abstain from most of our luxury foods throughout Advent. Doing so will likely look like this: a daily meal of rice, beans, and squash, or perhaps: potatoes, eggs, and broccoli. This is not a time for legalism or self-righteousness, but instead a time for building anticipation for the coming of Christ, for the fullness of the Kingdom of God, for the provision of a banquet for all people, for the perfection of all justice. You might even decide to take the money that you are saving by eating a simpler diet and give it away to those who experience hunger daily, or use the time you saved by preparing simpler meals for prayer.

A few caveats are needed as well. First, observing an Advent fast does not take precedence over the need for Christian love. This means that if you are invited to another person’s home during Advent that you should not reject the food that they offer you, but instead accept their hospitality and in doing so re-learn how to receive the generous provision of grace from God. Second, remember that every Sunday is a little Easter and that Sundays are properly observed with celebration that can include breaking your fast (making them a great time to eat those Christmas cookies you have been wanting to bake). Feast days within Advent are other opportunities for mini-feasts, as you may want to celebrate St. Lucia day or the Feast of Thomas the Apostle. Third, don’t worry about missing out on all the Christmas treats that you normally eat throughout December. When you observe Advent, you should also celebrate the twelve days of Christmastide, which means that you will have plenty of treats in the near future.

5. Advent Prayer

Under this site’s Prayer section, you will find weekly prayer guides meant to help you observe the season of Advent. You are invited to join us by using the weekly text to structure your prayer throughout Advent. You will find that the first week’s prayer will help you to focus on asking the Holy Spirit to cleanse you of your sins and bring you to righteousness so that you will have eternal life when Christ returns. The second week’s prayer will help you to focus on paying attention to what the ancient prophets foretold about Christ so that you will recognize him and greet him with joy when he returns. The third week will help you to reflect on the brokenness of this world and to ask God to quickly bring about the restoration of his creation. The fourth week will help you to ask that the Holy Spirit purify you so that you might be a fitting home for your Lord at his return.

It is my hope that these ideas will help you to grow in hopeful expectation of the Lord’s return this Advent. Please tell me about your own ideas below in the comments.

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