Here we are at the third week of Advent, and did you look at the calendar? Next Monday isn’t Advent Four. It is Christmas. I am somewhat traditional in my tastes. Not socially, but I do love a good plainsong setting to a psalm. And incense for me is prayer lifted on high. So I was pretty dubious about this Advent blue thing, but I am won over. Joy, without giving up the honesty and introspection of a penitential season. Gratitude rather than tears. Now with a three week Advent, it doesn’t feel finished, not by halves.
Historically this season was the Little Lent, the Michaelmas Lent of the English university school term, starting on Sept. 29th. It was important for a variety of social reasons (rent collection, for example), but it also marked the season leading up to Christmas (a minor holiday) and Epiphany (a major one) twelve days after Christmas (not before, as the secular Christmas Culture suggests to encourage sales). The liturgical year is a gift of formation as week after week we hear a succession of collects, those ignored prayers as we gather, ignored at our spiritual peril, and the chosen readings from Jewish Scripture, the Epistles, and the Gospel, all leading up to the liturgy of the Table beginning with the Proper Preface which focuses us, all of us, on what we are receiving and why. Formation isn’t a three year course in seminary. It is a lifetime of deepening our interior life in Christ.
Advent is the act of patiently waiting, in quiet gratitude, for what is to come. Since Easter is a solar/lunar event, and the date shifts, and Christmas is fixed, we end up with squeezed years like this one, and something important may be getting lost. No, it is not easy to stay focused on Christ’s Kingdom. Every blast of sensory input from the secular world distracts us. We are a battered people. Even the secular Christmas Culture recognizes this. The glitz and rush to buy anything and everything, all on sale, is beyond tempting. Retail therapy marches on.
But there is also the longing and attempt to find the door to that Kingdom, in every Christmas Faire and costumed event drawing on a long ago that never was, but is so much more attractive, heartwarming, than our own culture. And we are drowning in stories meant to inspire charity and goodness. All well and good, if it leads us to Christ’s Kingdom. But for most it does not, or if it does, it is a flash gone by St. Stephen’s Day, and long gone by Epiphany.
Perhaps that is what makes Advent so hard to grasp, so invisible. It isn’t sexy. If the Incarnation isn’t rooted in our minds, our souls, our life, it has little meaning. Which is what makes Advent so important as a formative tool for a faith community. Christianity is an incarnate religion, and we are called to be in the world. We need to practice being in the Kingdom in our crowded lives. If it is any consolation, Jesus didn’t find it easy either, and the Apostles found it baffling. So we are in good company. We are surrounded by the much easier road of being good people without Christianity. We are reliving the anxieties of the Early Church in many ways.
We can make do with the less than four weeks we have this year. Week one reminds us of God’s judgment. We hear about the coming of Jesus as the Christ, and the promise of the Holy Spirit in the Liturgy of weeks two and three. Can we make more time to explore the road to Bethlehem staring with Mary’s acceptance of the Incarnation, which is getting particular short shift this year? It is not yet time for Christmas carols. The old hymns about the Incarnation as a gift of redemption are left behind.
So here is a suggestion for a spiritual exercise for that penultimate week, made ultimate by a trick of the calendar. Everything can be found on the internet, although printing it out or reading it from books is more in keeping with the simplicity of the season. Hymn 56 in the 1982 Hymnal is a setting of “O Come, Emmanuel” and each of the verses starts with one of the O antiphons used the last week of Advent in monastic settings. But they are not quite in order. It should go like this: Dec 17, v.2, O come, thou Wisdom; Dec 18, v.3, Oh come, thou Lord; Dec. 19, v.4, O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree; Dec. 20, v.5, O come, thou Key of David; Dec. 21, v.6, O come, thou Dayspring; Dec. 22, v.7, O come, Desire of nations; Dec. 23, v.1 (also 8), O come, Emmanuel.
Here is the suggested service. Light your advent wreath, this year for week three. Open with the opening collect from Sunday Advent 3.
“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.”
Or 4, since this year is so short:
“Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen”.
Or pick a biblical verse, such as John 1:1-5. Then say or sing the verse assigned as the antiphon, or at least the first line. Then pray the Magnificat. Sit in silence and watch the candles. Open your heart to God as you wait for the birth of the Christ. Pray the Our Father. Snuff the candles. Do this every day with the antiphon assigned for that day. See how that prepares you for the Nativity of our Lord.
There is no shortage of ways to find Advent, in liturgy and music, in prayer and silence, in fellowship and practice. And this year we have only eight more days to get there. So hurry up, and Wait.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.