Everything has a beginning and for many churches – Anglican/Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox (albeit a bit differently) among others –the church year begins with Advent. The Advent season begins four Sundays before Christmas and marks the anticipation of the arrival of the Christ child in the world. Although it’s not a new thing, perhaps this year it’s helpful to look at building blocks, the kind children have with the letters of the alphabet on it, to see it in its fullest and to explore its many facets beyond imply a time when the church changes the color scheme from green to purple or blue.
A is for Advent. Many people celebrate the season with special things like wreaths, candles, readings and calendars. For children especially, Advent often means hanging a calendar on the wall with 25 or so little doors, each numbered to correspond with the number of days left until Christmas. Sometimes the little doors conceal very tangible things like candies or tiny toys, but most often they contain a picture, usually something related to the theme of the calendar. Even for adults Advent calendars can be fun, either as a reminder of the ones they had as children or just curiosity to see what the next door conceals.
A stands for angels. One angel is particularly connected with the season, however when it comes to Christmas, angels show up all over the place. With Christmas coming, there might be a little angelic work done in the background or a bit of angelic behavior from even the rowdiest tot who contemplates the notion that a certain saint-ish character in a red suit and white beard just might be watching them a little more closely to see if they were good children.
A can also stand for aromas, the lovely smells that show up this time of year and that brings such fond associations. The smell of baking cookies and pies are reminders of the holiday season as a child. Even though our family, as Southern Baptists, did not recognize or observe Advent, the time before Christmas was used to prepare for family holiday celebrations, school parties, and even social events at church. I remember walking in from school in the afternoons and often getting the scent of pumpkin or mince pie, sugar and chocolate chip cookies, and other delightful stuff. But aromas weren’t just confined to the kitchen. Wreaths and swags for the door appeared with their aroma of cedar and pine. Candles and sachets often were a kind of incense for the home. During the season in Williamsburg, festivities center around the sight of candles in the windows, crisp winter evenings, and hot cider and warm gingerbread from the tavern kitchens served on the Green to warm and cheer those who came to celebrate. It was and still is a magical time. Advent for me begins with a number of thoughts and fond memories.
One final A in the Advent alphabet is anticipation, the building of excitement as we look forward to the Christmas season celebrating the birth of Jesus. There is the anticipation of visiting friends and family that maybe we don’t see very often. We send and receive cards to close friends and family both around the corner and around the world. Then there are gifts, selected with care and received with pleasure, especially those for the children who seem to have a boundless appetite for presents (and cats who love the rustling of paper, empty boxes, and ribbons and bows to wrestle with and chase).
We go to church and see the Advent wreath with a new candle lit each week, we sing special hymns and music, and we hear the stories and prophecies that point us toward the true meaning of not just Advent but of Christmas as well. Advent calls us to remember that it isn’t about Santa Claus or acquisitiveness of material things that make this season important. Metaphorically perhaps it could be said that Advent is a little like being pregnant, no matter our age, gender or status in life. There is an expectation, an anticipation, and an excitement that grows in all but the hardest of hearts and minds, and that, I believe, is the real gift of Advent.
We can not overlook the reality of the world around us with its disasters, wars, suffering and inhumanity but for perhaps this one month of the year we can look through them to see where we can make a difference as a gift to a small baby born in a manger and who asked for nothing and yet asked for everything from us. Every bit of good we do for someone else is a gift for the Christ child whose birth we anticipate and celebrate. It’s about making the world a better place for all of us and the anticipation of the restoration of the kingdom of God on earth. And it’s about seeing and spreading a little comfort and joy in a world that could sorely use it.
Have a blessed Advent.