Advent and Christmas

What Is Advent?

Advent is a spiritual preparation period in which many Christians make themselves ready for the coming, or birth of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Celebrating Advent typically involves a season of prayer, fasting, and repentance, followed by anticipation, hope, and joy.

Many Christians celebrate Advent not only by thanking God for Christ’s first coming to Earth as a baby but also for his presence among us today through the Holy Spirit and in preparation and anticipation of his final coming at the end of the age.

In Western Christianity, Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, or the Sunday which falls closest to November 30, and lasts through Christmas Eve, or December 24. When Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday, it is the last or fourth Sunday of Advent. Thus, Advent’s actual season can last anywhere from 22-28 days, but most commercial Advent calendars start on December 1.

Advent began sometime after the 4th century as a time of fasting and preparation for Epiphany, rather than in anticipation of Christmas. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ by remembering the visit of the wise men and, in some traditions, the Baptism of Jesus. Sermons focused on the wonder of the Lord’s Incarnation or becoming a man. At this time, new Christians were baptized and received into the faith, and so the early church instituted 40 days of fasting and repentance.

Later, in the 6th

 century, St. Gregory the Great was the first to associate this season of Advent with the coming of Christ. Originally it was not the coming of the Christ-child that was anticipated, but the Second Coming of Christ.

By the Middle Ages, four Sundays had become the standard length of the Advent season, with fasting and repentance during that time. The church also extended the meaning of Advent to include the coming of Christ through his birth in Bethlehem, his future coming at the end of time, and his presence among us through the promised Holy Spirit.

The advent candles and their colors are packed with rich meaning. Each represents a specific aspect of the spiritual preparations for Christmas.

The three primary colors are purple, pink, and white. Purple symbolizes repentance and royalty. (In the Catholic church, purple is also the liturgical color at this time of year.) Pink represents joy and rejoicing. And white stands for purity and light.

Each candle carries a specific name as well. The first purple candle is called the Prophecy Candle or Candle of Hope. The second purple candle is the Bethlehem Candle or the Candle of Preparation. The third (pink) candle is the Shepherd Candle or Candle of Joy. The fourth candle, a purple one, is called the Angel Candle or the Candle of Love. And the last (white) candle is the Christ Candle.

The symbols of Advent are reminders. They help us grow spiritually by leading us to a closer relationship to the Christ who came, the Christ that is present, and the Christ who will come again.

The first week of Advent is all about hope.

Think about hope as you hear Lamentations 3: 21-24: “But this I call to mind, and therefore, I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore, I will hope in the Lord.”

Everyone knows the story of Helen Keller. I love that moment, let’s call it the Helen Keller Moment, when she learned that a sign, a hand movement, could represent letters of the alphabet, learning that five distinct movements of the hands could mean w A T E R. Of that moment she said, “The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” There is a word for that: Revelation. That is a Peter moment: [say out loud slowly and put your hands together as if you are making signs] C H R I S T. “You are the Christ. The son of the living God.” That is the moment Peter connects God’s Word with the person of Jesus Christ. When the living Word awakens our soul, giving it hope!

One purple candle is lit

Prayer: Gracious God, As the Advent season begins, we cry out to you. We come to you looking for hope. When everything else we rely on fails us, our only hope is in you. When we do not understand what has happened, we hope in you. We can hope for better days because we trust you. We know you, and we know you are here with us no matter what we are facing. Some of us see only darkness this time of year. Some of us find life overwhelming. Some of us are filled with Advent joy. Wherever we find ourselves today, Loving God, remind us that our hope is in you. Be with us on this journey. Amen.

For the second week in Advent, we focus on Peace.

In John 14:27, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”

Two months before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta about his death in what would oddly enough become his eulogy. He said: “Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral,” Dr. King told his congregation. “If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then, I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize. That isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards. That’s not important. I’d like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like someone to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try, in my life, to clothe those who were naked. I want you to be able to say that I did try to visit those in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.” Dr. King concluded with these words: “I won’t have any money left behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

Did Reverend King have that level of commitment when he first began his ministry? It isn’t very likely. He had youthful enthusiasm, to be sure. He had strong convictions. He was well brought up, with an outstanding Baptist preacher as a father. But people who are truly captured by the spirit of Christ do so generally after years of walking in Christ’s footsteps. Our faith is validated and grows as we “come and see.”

Two purple candles are lit.

Prayer: Prince of Peace, reveal yourself to us today. We need Peace in our lives, our homes, our families, our church, and our whole world. Help us to slow down and seek out the Peace you provide so that we may become peacemakers for ourselves and others. In your name, Prince of Peace, we pray. Amen.

 During the third week in Advent, we spend time thinking about joy.

From Psalm 5:11, we hear these words, “But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may rejoice in you.”

If I can throw a single ray of light across the darkened pathway of another; if I can aid some soul to a clearer sight of life and duty, and thus bless my brother; if I can wipe from any human cheek a tear, I shall not have lived my life in vain while here.

If I can guide some erring one to truth, inspire within his heart a sense of duty; if I can plant within my soul of rosy youth a sense of right, a love of truth and beauty; if I can teach one man that God and heaven are near, I shall not then have lived in vain while here.

If from my mind I banish doubt and fear and keep my life attuned to love and kindness; if I can scatter light and hope and cheer, and help remove the curse of mental blindness; if I can make more joy, more hope, less pain, I shall not have lived and loved in vain.

If by life’s roadside I can plant a tree, beneath whose shade some wearied head my rest, though I may never share its beauty, I shall yet be truly blest­ though no one knows my name, nor drops a flower upon my grave, I shall not have lived in vain while here.

Two purple candles and one pink candle are lit.

Prayer: Too often, we think joy is something big, O God. A brass band or a parade can certainly bring us joy. Just as easily and far more often, we can feel joy in a hug or the squeeze of a hand. We can see the joy in a smile or hear it in laughter. Please help us not to overlook the simple pleasures that peak into our lives daily. This week in our Advent journey, open our eyes to the joy that surrounds us. Amen.

In this final week of Advent, our attention is on love.

The following Scripture verses may sound awfully familiar so that we will hear them twice. The first time is in the New Revised Standard Version. The second time you’ll be reading from the Message. Listen to the call to love in these words.

Matthew 22:36-40 says, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him,” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

“Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?” Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law, and the Prophets hangs from them.”

There is a Trinity to love. First, Love of God. Second, the Love of others. Lastly, the love of one’s self

Three purple candles and one pink candle are lit.

Prayer: God, we have learned to love from being loved by you. And so today, let us enact that love. Let us live that love. We know that what the world needs now is more love. We need to remember how much you love each of us, and we must share that love with others. Amen.

Christmas

Merry Christmas! The Christ candle is lit. Christ came to the world. Christ still comes to the world. And Christ will come again to the world.

Today is the day we have been preparing for throughout Advent. Jesus is born. Here is the story, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel.

“In those days, Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.  Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled.  Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.  He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant.  While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby.  She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

Nearby, shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night.  The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.  Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.  This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”  Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let us go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let us confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child.  Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them.  Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. The shepherds returned home, glorifying, and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.”

All five candles are lit.

Prayer: We have been waiting for this day, Loving God. We have prepared ourselves for this special day. On this Christmas Day, let us live as those who let hope, Peace, joy, and love reign in our lives. As the candles burn brightly and light our path, let us live as those who have the Christ’s light burning inside us today and every day. Amen.