- Rev. Kristen Yates, Pastor for Spiritual Formation and Congregational Care
God’s Faithfulness and Our Honesty Before God
Advent is here, and I am excited! Now, I don’t know about you, but Advent is my favorite season of the Christian Calendar, and it’s not just the lights, music, celebrations, and retelling of wondrous Biblical stories that bring me delight in this season. I do absolutely love those aspects of the season, but my real sense of joy comes from time spent meditating on God’s loving faithfulness and time spent being honest with God in this season. Perhaps more than any other season, Advent allows me to give expression to my full range of emotions – from joy to wonder to hope to sadness to yearning to anger to fear. I love that about Advent. I need that.
You see, in Advent, we not only wait to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th, but we also wait in great anticipation for the Second Coming of Jesus when He will return in glory and will finally restore and renew all things.
On one hand, this waiting brings hope as we begin to imagine this renewed world where no tears will be shed and justice and peace will reign. On the other hand, it opens up a space for longing, frustration, lament, and yes even fear and anger as we grapple with the world as it is now and ask God, “How long Lord? How long will it be before you return and make things right?”
This waiting also opens up a space for self-reflection as we wrestle with how we ourselves contribute to the brokenness in our relationships and in the world, and as we wait for God to renew our own hearts.
The truth is that the world is broken. We are broken. And Advent gives us space to grapple with this reality.
Despite the saccharine nature of many of our culture’s Christmas practices, Advent is not a time for sugarcoating the reality of our world or the reality of our feelings or the states of our hearts. It is a season for honesty, and it is in this honesty that we can find the true joy that Jesus wants to give us in this season. A joy that is not built on reindeer, snowmen, Christmas trees, pretense, or pageantry, but a joy that is grounded in an authentic relationship with God where we can wrestle truthfully with the state of the world and with the state of our hearts. A joy that is built upon God’s loving faithfulness and His promises to make all things new - realities that remain true no matter what the states of our hearts and feelings are.
In this season, we are reminded that God so loved the world that He created it in the first place, and then when people walked away in sin, He called out a special nation, Israel, to be a blessing to all nations.
In this season, we are reminded that when Israel failed to fully live up to its call, God so loved the world that He raised up a shoot out of the stump of Jesse; this shoot was Jesus. This Jesus, the Messiah, the Second Person of the Trinity, was God in flesh who came to this world out of love, ultimately died and was raised from the dead for love of the world, and then sent love and joy into our hearts when he gave the Holy Spirit to those who believed.
In this season, we are reminded that it is this same Jesus who will one day return and renew all things because He so loves the world.
It is because of this steadfast love and faithfulness that God has shown his people over thousands of years that we are able to hold out true hope during this season, and it is through this hope, coupled with our ability to be honest before the Lord with all our emotions and responses to the world around us, that we can develop a true and deep and abiding joy in this season. This is why I love Advent, and this is why I hope you do too.
Welcome to Advent. May you experience true joy!
Spiritual Practices to Foster Joy During This Season
While it is definitely not the pageantry of this season that brings true joy, nevertheless there are some practices that we as individuals and the church as a whole can embrace, which can help to foster this joy during this season. Here are some brief explanations of some very common Advent practices.
The Color Purple
In liturgical churches, the color purple symbolizes preparation and penitence, so you will see the color purple being used in our church and in many others during the season of Advent. The color reminds us that as we wait for Jesus to come again and to judge the world with righteousness and truth, we are called to prepare to meet the Lord, and that means looking into our hearts and asking God for transformation and renewal. As the traditional first Sunday in Advent Collect says,
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.
So as we come into our worship space each week and go about our lives during the rest of the week, we are called to find spaces of self-reflection. Let the color purple remind us of this, for only as we are real with ourselves and real with the Lord can we find that deep and abiding joy that God would like to give to us.
Advent Groups, Quiet Days, and Quiet Times
Each Advent, churches usually set aside some time for quiet days, retreats, reflection, and prayer. This year, our church is setting apart time on Wednesdays and alternating Sundays. In the busyness of the season, it can be difficult for us to focus on the true meaning of Advent. With this in mind, we purposely set aside time for silence, prayer, reflection of Advent Scriptures and music, and conversation with God and each other. We do this so that we might hear from God and live more fully into this season.
We also encourage each one of us to create space in our own days and weeks to find this time to be alone with God – to just “be” with the Lord - to express our laments and frustrations, to give voice to our longings and hopes, to get in touch with our hearts, to make space for self-reflection, and to reflect upon and rejoice in God’s faithfulness.
The Advent Wreath, Advent Spiral, and Christmas Lights
The traditional Advent wreath is in a circle, which symbolizes God’s eternity. Each Sunday in Advent, we light a new candle. This progressive lighting represents the great Light has dawned in the land of darkness (Isaiah 9). It symbolizes our hope and our waiting for the coming of Christ – both for the celebration of His birth and His Second Coming. Three of the candles are in the traditional penitential purple, but the fourth candle, which we light on the third week, is pink and represents joy. All of the candles symbolize one of the virtues that God awakens in us: hope, love, joy, and peace. As for the middle candle which is white, it is the Christ candle, which is lit on Christmas Eve and symbolizes that the Light of the World has come.
In recent years, some people have also taken up lighting an Advent spiral. Instead of lighting a candle each Sunday, one lights a candle each day in December. The progressive lighting marks time just as an Advent Calendar does and again reminds us of Jesus, the Light that is dawning in the darkness of our world. The lighting of the candle often corresponds with our time for daily prayer and devotions, either as a family or as an individual.
Much like the candles we light on Advent wreaths, the lights we put up on our trees and our houses also represent the Light of Jesus coming into this world of darkness.
So as we light the candles in our Advent wreaths at church and at home this year or as we appreciate the Christmas lights all around us, let us remember Jesus the true Light of the World who is the source of our salvation and joy.
Lessons and Carols
The Anglican Lessons and Carols Service is a traditional service that churches hold sometime in December. While our church won’t be hosting one this year, I know that some of us will be attending these services elsewhere. What is the purpose of this service? Well, as the name suggests, it is simply a service of reading Scriptures and singing Advent (and maybe a few Christmas) carols. The Scriptures and music take us through Creation, Fall, the Call of Israel, the Waiting for a Messiah, and the pregnancy of Mary (and all the other wondrous events that go with that). Through that service, we are reminded of God’s faithfulness over the millennia as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus and as we wait for Jesus to come again to bring peace and justice into this world.
The Jesse Tree
The Jesse tree serves a similar purpose as the Lessons and Carols but it is generally a practice that is done at home with the family. Each day, usually starting on December 1st, children and adults with child-like imaginations read an Old Testament story and hang an ornament on a Jesse tree, which symbolizes the shoot that arose out of the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1), which of course was Jesus. Like the Lessons and Carols, the Scriptures take us through Creation, Fall, the Call of Israel, the Waiting for the Messiah, and the pregnancy of Mary, but it covers more of the Old Testament since there are 25 days to reflect on these stories of God’s faithfulness throughout time. As we reflect on this faithfulness, the true joy of the season arises in our hearts as we remember God’s love and promises.