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Advent observed as time to watch, wait for Christ Bill Fentum, Nov 23, 2009
PHOTO COURTESY OF SAINT HILARY COMMUNICATIONS
Advent wreaths, popular in U.S. churches since the 1930s, are lighted to mark the passage of the season.
By Bill Fentum Staff Writer
To some churchgoers, the season of Advent feels a little unnatural: four weeks of getting ready for Christmas while celebrations in the secular world practically jump ahead to Dec. 25.
Why the wait? The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship, has a quick answer.
“Christians aren’t the rest of the world,” he says, “and our calendar isn’t driven by consumer or cultural timetables.”
Advent (from the Latin word Adventus, or “coming”)—observed in the Western church on the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day—starts this year on Nov. 29. It’s the first season in the liturgical year, a time to anticipate both the arrival of the Christ child and Christ’s return at the end of time.
Lectionary readings in the first Sunday of Advent focus on the Second Coming, to tie in with Christ the King Sunday, Nov. 22. The second and third weeks of Advent start a journey, as John the Baptist prepares the way for the Messiah. In the fourth week, the story of Jesus’ birth culminates on Christmas Eve and leads into Christmas.
“If you look at the flow of what Advent does,” Mr. Burton-Edwards said in an interview, “we’re not just looking at the babe in the manger. We look at the hope before he came into the world, but also at the fullness of hope expressed in the reign of God.”
Advent wreaths, popular in many church traditions, mark the passing of the season with a new candle lighted each Sunday. Typically, four purple, blue or white candles represent the four weeks, while an additional candle may be lit in the center on Christmas Eve to symbolize Christ’s arrival.
In some churches the four candles consecutively signify hope, peace, joy and love. However, Mr. Burton-Edwards cautions, those themes and even the wreath itself were invented late in church history, possibly not until the 19th century. “I encourage congregations to be creative,” he said, “and look for symbols beyond just the wreath that embody the messages in Scripture.”
Marcia McFee, a United Methodist laywoman who leads worship design workshops around the country, calls that search for symbols “metaphoraging”—or foraging for metaphors that create meaning. Examples for Advent, she noted, might include images of seeds “planted in the cold, dark earth, waiting to emerge.”
“Perhaps each week we could talk about the different stages in a plant’s growth until it blossoms,” Dr. McFee said, “like holiness emerging in the world through Jesus Christ. Something tangible that makes the season meaningful and memorable for folks.”
She also urges churches to get creative with music during Advent. The United Methodist Hymnal includes four hymns for the season, with others posted at www.gbod.org/worship. Look outside Methodism, Dr. McFee suggested, and it’s easy to find Advent songs from around the world.
“Because one of the main images for Advent is growing light, it might be fun to pick four songs on that theme in four different styles, from four different places, to show how the light of Christ binds us together,” she said.
Too often, local churches forsake Advent hymns for the more familiar songs of Christmas, Mr. Burton-Edwards said. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many United Methodist congregations that observe Advent solely as Advent. Some of them sing Christmas carols as early as the second week of the season.”
Or perhaps even earlier.
Members of St. John’s UMC in Dover, N.H., plan to sing carols after decorating their sanctuary on the first Sunday of Advent. The next week, a Communion liturgy at the church will be set to yuletide melodies.
“It’s a regular theological battle we have,” said the Rev. Mark Monson Alley, pastor at St. John’s. “Every year, some folks ask why we don’t sing carols all through December. I would rather wait, but I’m becoming more flexible about it.”
Banning carols in church until Christmas “only makes people grumpy,” according to the Rev. Doyle Burbank-Williams, pastor of First UMC in Wayne, Neb. “I discovered a long time ago,” he said, “that it’s better to give them a little bit of what they expect in the season, and then add something they won’t find outside the church doors.”
For instance, First UMC based its 2008 Advent services on Las Posadas, a Spanish tradition re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter in Bethlehem. Mr. Burbank-Williams set a pair of cardboard doors in front of the altar that remained closed until Christmas Eve; then the doors were opened to let in a couple who played the Holy Family, while others welcomed them in song.
The whole sanctuary “reflected a little bit of the flavor a Mexican celebration,” he said. “As soon as people walked in on Sundays, they felt something different was going on.”
Karen Puckett, a licensed local pastor, preached an Advent series last year at Burley UMC in northern Idaho. Each Sunday she spoke as a character from the Nativity story, while a volunteer in the chancel silently portrayed that person: Mary folding baby clothes, Mary’s mother in a rocking chair or Joseph carving wood.
The sermons, done without period costumes, let church members imagine themselves in those roles. “I also based the children’s sermons on the props,” Ms. Puckett said, “asking the kids who might need baby clothes or a chisel. So they got in on it, too.”
This year, even weekly small group meetings at Burley will relate to Advent. Ms. Puckett plans to lead Thursday sessions about the denomination’s Social Principles, “focused on caring for the poor and marginalized, largely in response to the economy.”
Advent should call people to mission beyond Sunday morning, says Dr. McFee, the worship consultant. She talked recently to a church that starts the season with a decorated sanctuary, loaded with poinsettias, gifts and food. They take it all to people in need, ending on Christmas Eve with only a lighted Advent wreath.
“I love that idea,” Dr. McFee said. “It strips away all the trappings of Christmas and leaves us with that one, simple gift: the presence of Christ in the world. So when we get to Christmas Day, it’s not about how many presents we have under the tree. It’s about what we’re doing with our lives.”
In areas hit hard by the recession, Dr. McFee added, churches could invite members to bring a candle from home to Christmas Eve services. “Each person swaps candles with a neighbor,” she said, “so everyone takes home the message that they’re never alone, that they won’t be left in despair because we are connected.”
At the Nebraska church, Mr. Burbank-Williams urges all members to “step back” from the busyness of the season—whether that means reading daily devotions, lighting Advent wreaths at home or simply not shopping themselves to death.
“People end up frustrated and worn out,” he said, “when they get caught up in the commercialism or allow Christmas to just happen to them. Don’t react to Christmas. Figure out what you want it to do with the season, and do it intentionally.”
The Rev. Beth Richardson, an ordained United Methodist deacon, wrote The Uncluttered Heart: Making Room for God During Advent and Christmas, newly published by Upper Room Ministries. But sometimes, she has to remind herself to take her own advice.
“I miss chances to see Christ in my day-to-day life if I’m too occupied making lists or fighting traffic,” she said. “That’s part of the Advent struggle: being fully present in every moment, looking for the way God shines in a hymn, a child’s face or an interaction with others.
“Keep watch,” she said. “Where is God breaking into your life?”