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Rediscovering Advent

As the culture of the Church yields more and more to the priorities and the attitudes of the secular culture, and as Christmas becomes for many people a secular holiday that begins at Thanksgiving (at the end of November in the U.S.) and comes to an end shortly after dinner on December 25th, it becomes more and more difficult to observe the season of Advent with any integrity, even within the Church. Christmas concerts, Christmas parties, even Christmas services of lessons and carols are held from early December on, building to an almost anti-climactic series of services on December 24th and 25th. Those who insist on waiting to celebrate Christmas when it actually arrives are regarded as dreary pedants who are simply out-of-step with reality or insensitive to the feelings of those who prefer to follow their own traditions rather than the ancient cadences of the Church year. Although they have a high view of the faith and the feast, they are often dismissed as modern day Ebenezer Scrooges, who thought Christmas was humbug and did not even care that Advent existed. 

Sadly, much is lost in this popular reordering of the Church year. In fact, Christmas itself is impoverished. The Church has appointed twelve days for the celebration of Christmas, from December 25th through January 5th. Those days include important feasts, including St. Stephen the first martyr, St. John the Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, and the Holy Name, which help to illuminate more fully the meaning of Christmas. If the celebration of Christmas ends after dinner on December 25th, we lose those great days and the mysteries they unfold. Moreover, by celebrating Christmas from the beginning of December on, we override Advent and lose it. And this is a terrible loss. Advent sets before us the powerful unfolding of God's plan for all of history, a plan that culminates not in the first coming of Christ, but in his second coming.Christ in Majesty, by Andrei Rublev (c. 1360 - c. 1430) Without Advent, Christmas is all too easily reduced to a sentimental story about a baby, and even Good Friday and Easter are in danger of losing their meaning. Christmas is the celebration of the mystery of the divine Redeemer who dwelt among us on earth. But he is truly the Redeemer only if he comes again to judge the world and establish for ever his new creation. Pascha, i.e., Good Friday and Easter, is the celebration of the mystery of the divine King who reigns from the Cross and rises from the dead on the third day. But he is truly the King only if he ascends the throne prepared for him by his Father from the beginning of time, the throne of his eternal Kingdom which will not be fully realized until the end of time.

When Advent is swamped and washed away by the premature celebration of Christmas, we lose something more: we lose the gifts of expectation and anticipation. Modern western society is a culture of instant gratification. We are unwilling to wait for anything and in refusing to wait we also lose much of the value of the thing desired. If we can have anything we want, whenever we want it, everything is cheapened and nothing is of much value. On the other hand, waiting patiently gives us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning and value of the things we desire. Indeed, it enhances the value of those things, for nothing is more valuable than the thing that is out of reach, and few possessions are more prized than the ones for which we have longed and waited. Furthermore, the truth is that, in spite of our desire for instant gratification, and in spite of the fact that we live in a time of abundance of every sort, we cannot always have what we want or, more importantly, what we need.  And in such circumstances, what we need more than anything else is hope. In C.S. Lewis's Narnia, it was always winter but never Christmas before the return of Aslan. It was, in certain ways, a very unhappy time, but it was also a time in which the citizens of Narnia found that they could survive, if only they could hold on to their faith, with the hope that Aslan would return someday. Hope nurtures faith in a way that instant gratification never can. Had it been the other way around, always Christmas, a time of unending gift-giving and continual parties, faith, as well as hope, would have been in jeopardy. For when a time of darkness or danger returned, no one would have been prepared to deal with it, no one would have had the inner resources to face it. As Saint Paul writes (Romans 5:3-4), "we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." (Romans 5:3-4) Advent is the Church's time of learning to live through the darkness, learning to grow in the hope that sustains faith. Rediscovering Advent thus becomes a project of the greatest importance.

The season of Advent looks back, to a time before the birth of Christ, to show us how the people of God learned hope in ancient times. And then the season of Advent looks forward, far beyond the birth of Christ, to the true object of our faith, the King who comes to conquer the darkness, restore creation, and establish his Kingdom for ever. We see in the stories of ancient Israel and in the writings of the prophets a world very much like our own, a world of people rebelling against God and finding themselves lost in darkness again and again. The prophets also show how God has a plan, not only for his people Israel but for the whole world--a plan that extends beyond the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. The coming of the Messiah then, at a remarkable moment of peace in the ancient world, was not the completion of God's plan. Nevertheless, it was the turning point, the critical sign which assures us that there is reason to hope. And so, in Advent we recall the ancient prophecies and signs which led to the birth of the Messiah, and we look forward in hope, applying those same prophecies and signs to the world in which we live, in hope and faithful anticipation that the same Messiah, Jesus Christ, will come again as he promised.

We cannot hope to reverse the commercial hijacking and premature celebration of Christmas which has played a major role in the near demise of Advent, so we should not waste our time trying. What we can do is rededicate ourselves to the observance of Advent in our churches and in our homes. Through the years the Church has developed many resources for this, so we do not need to reinvent Advent. We just need to rediscover it.

An Advent Reflection by the Archbishop of Canterbury


 

Saint Martin's Lent

The early Church really only had one feast day, Pascha, or Easter. It was celebrated both annually and weekly, for every Sunday is a little Pasch, a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus. In time, however, other events in the life of Jesus, as well as the heavenly birthdays of the saints, came to have annual commemorations. Christmas, the celebration of the Birth of Jesus, appears in the calendar of the Church year in the middle of the fourth century. As it grew in importance and acceptance, the Church began to teach people to prepare for Christmas in much the same way that they prepared for Pascha, with a season of penitence and fasting. Thus, by the middle of the fifth century, the Church was observing "St. Martin's Lent," beginning at the conclusion of the feast of St. Martin of Tours, November 11th.  This season, which came to be known as Advent (Latin adventus, "coming"), was similar in length to the pre-paschal Lent, but was not as rigorous, and in time it was shortened, though the exact length varied from place to place. While the western Church officially observes a Lent that begins four Sundays before Christmas, vestiges of a six-week season still survive, particularly in the lectionaries for both the Eucharist and the Daily Office. While Christmas is about the first coming of the Son of God in his Incarnation, Advent has focused primarily on his second coming, at the end of time. The readings for much of the season emphasize the coming of the messiah who comes to judge the world and redeem his people. These emphases begin two or three weeks before the First Sunday of Advent. An example of this may be seen in the Gospels appointed for the end of Year A and the beginning of Year B in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

Martin of Tours, by Simone Martini (1280-1344) Sunday
 
Gospel Theme
Proper 27 A
(3 before Advent)
 
Matthew  25:1-13     The parable of the wise and foolish virgins: being prepared to meet the bridegroom
 
Proper 28 A
(2 before Advent)    
 
Matthew 25:14-15,
19-29    
The parable of the talents:  being prepared to give account
 
Proper 29 A
(1 before Advent)
 
Matthew 25:31-46 The last judgment: separating the sheep from the goats
 
1 Advent B
 
Mark 13:24-37 Jesus' teaching about signs of the end
 
2 Advent B
 
Mark 1:1-8 John the Baptist appears as the messenger about whom Isaiah prophesied
 
3 Advent B
 
John 1:6-8, 19-28 John the Baptist foretells the coming of one greater than himself
 
4 Advent B Luke 1:26-38 The Annunciation

Only on the last Sunday of Advent does the Gospel point us to the specifics of the Incarnation. Up until then, our preparation for Christmas is not a preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Rather, it is a preparation for the final encounter of the whole world with the Messiah who will come again to judge both the living and the dead at the end of time. To be truly prepared to receive the Babe of Bethlehem when we celebrate Christmas, we need to be prepared to receive him as our Judge and our King for ever. While the secular world is prematurely celebrating Christmas, the preservation of an older Advent in the lectionary suggests a simple way of recovering a fuller Advent, simply by beginning it sooner. Instead of Sundays after Pentecost, the last three Sundays of the season could be designated Sundays before Advent, a season of preparation for Advent itself, with Advent vestments and music and, most importantly customs and disciplines that would make us ready to keep Advent as a winter Lent rather than a premature Christmas. A fuller Advent would adopt the traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in the spirit of St. Martin who is pictured above in the act of dividing his cloak in half to clothe a poor beggar. In a dream, it was revealed to Martin that the beggar was Christ himself, and that Martin had, by his act of charity, fulfilled the Gospel injunction, "inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Gospel for the Sunday before Advent, Year A). Our page on Preparing for Lent may also be used as a resource for Advent.
 

Stir-Up Sunday
 
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The traditional Collect for the Sunday next before Advent was echoed in a popular rhyme on the way home from church:
 
Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot;
And when we get home, we'll eat the lot.

...though, technically, the agenda for the day was not eating the pudding, but making it. On the Sunday before the beginning of Advent, it has always been customary to make the Christmas pudding (a type of fruit cake) so that the flavors could blend and age properly for the pudding to be at its best when eaten at Christmas dinner. Everyone shares in the making of the pudding, taking turns stirring it (east to west, the direction the wise men traveled) and each person making a wish while taking her or his turn at stirring. Often the cake also has tokens baked into it: a coin to signify that the finder would have a prosperous year, a ring to foretell a coming marriage or a button or thimble to predict another year of bachelorhood or spinsterhood. In the full homeliest manner, the making of the pudding renews a sense that the presence and purposes of God are never far removed from quotidian life. The sweetness of the pudding is a sign that God always desires the peace and happiness of his people. The contents of the pudding are a subtle reminder of a principal object of the Christian life: the fruit of good works, referred to in the collect. Sadly, the traditional collect has been replaced in many revisions of the Book of Common Prayer, but in the Church of England it has found new life as the prayer after Communion.

With or without the traditional collect in the Church's liturgy, there is no reason why Christian families cannot continue this tradition and use the old collect at home. After all, the Christmas pudding does need to be prepared in advance if it is to rise to the occasion on which it is eaten. The traditional English Christmas pudding is a steamed plum pudding. Click here for a website with a typical recipe. The American fruit cake is a variation on the same theme. We note that fruit cake has gotten a bad reputation, due to poorly made commercial versions that are dry and tasteless. When made in advance (to a good recipe, of course) and cured with regular infusions of quality spirits (wine, brandy, or bourbon are all suitable), a fruit cake is, in our humble opinion, one of the noblest confections ever created, and easily on a par with the best plum puddings.
 

Palestinian oil lamp - Byzantine period


The Advent Wreath

One of the most familiar of all Advent customs is the Advent wreath: a simple circle of evergreens, representing eternity, into which are set four candles, one for each of the Sundays of Advent. The Advent wreath comes from Germany but has been adopted by churches throughout the West. It was originally used in homes, and still is, but it is now found in churches, as well. The candles may be any color. However, many people choose to follow the color of the liturgical season. In that case, the candles may be either blue, following the old English use that is increasingly used in Anglican churches today or, following the traditional Roman use, there may be three violet (or purple) candles and one rose (pink) candle. In addition to marking the passage of time, the candles symbolize the movement from the darkness of sin to the coming of the light that is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

While an Advent wreath in the church can be a good seasonal focal point, their real value is in the home as a daily call to be prepared for the coming of the King. The wreath should be in a place that the members of the household gather regularly. The dining table is a good place, if the household actually gathers for meals, something that can no longer be taken for granted in the hectic pace of the modern world. The Advent wreath may also be used in conjunction with other devotions, either the regular daily prayers of a family, or other special Advent devotions, such as a Jesse tree. The daily lighting of the wreath does not need to be accompanied by elaborate ceremony, but it should certainly involve more than simply lighting a candle. Here is a simple devotion that may be used at the beginning of a meal, at the beginning of Morning or Evening Prayer, or at the beginning of family prayers each day in Advent.

The First Week of Advent

Leader:  Watch, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning, lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. (Mark 13: 35, 36)

Light the first candle. Unless Morning or Evening Prayer is to follow immediately, a lesson from Scripture may be read. Lessons may be chosen from the Daily Office lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer or the Jesse Tree devotion (below).

Leader or all together:  God our Father, we ask for the light of your peace and love to shine in our hearts and in our world. Help us to prepare ourselves and our homes to receive the Light of the world, our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Or, the Lord's Prayer and the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent)

If a meal is to follow, the usual grace before meals is said.

The Second Week of Advent

Leader:  In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

Light the first and second candles. Unless Morning or Evening Prayer is to follow immediately, a lesson from Scripture may be read. Lessons may be chosen from the Daily Office lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer or the Jesse Tree devotion (below) or, beginning on December 16th, the devotion for the last days of Advent.

Leader or all together:  Heavenly Father, help us to remember that you are always with us. Cleanse our hearts of all thoughts and desires that keep us from loving you and our neighbor and fill us with your love that we may be prepared to receive your Son when he comes, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Or, the Lord's Prayer and the Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent)

If a meal is to follow, the usual grace before meals is said.

The Third Week of Advent

Leader:  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)

Light the first, second, and third candles. If there is a rose (pink) candle, it is the third candle. Unless Morning or Evening Prayer is to follow immediately, a lesson from Scripture may be read. Lessons may be chosen from the Daily Office lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer or the Jesse Tree devotion (below) or, beginning on December 16th, the devotion for the last days of Advent.

Leader or all together:  Blessed Father, we pray that the whole world may share with us the joy of knowing you. Give faith to those who doubt; give hope to those who are in need; give love to those who are friendless and alone; and draw us all closer together in the power of your Holy Spirit and the presence of your Son Jesus Christ, who live and reign with you, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Or, the Lord's Prayer and the Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent)

If a meal is to follow, the usual grace before meals is said.

The Fourth Week of Advent

Leader:  The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (Isaiah 40:5)

Light all four candles. Unless Morning or Evening Prayer is to follow immediately, a lesson from Scripture may be read. Lessons may be chosen from the Daily Office lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer or the Jesse Tree devotion (below) or, beginning on December 16th, the devotion for the last days of Advent.

Leader or all together:  Holy Father, as we wait for the coming of your Son, help us to recognize him in those we know and also in the stranger. Help us to love not only our families and our friends, but also our enemies. Help us to be patient and to be prepared to receive your Son in our hearts, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Or, the Lord's Prayer and the Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent)

If a meal is to follow, the usual grace before meals is said.

Christmas Day

Leader:  Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10,11)

Place a fifth candle (usually a white candle) in the center of the wreath and light all five candles. Unless Morning or Evening Prayer is to follow immediately, a lesson from Scripture may be read. Lessons may be chosen from the Daily Office lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer or the Jesse Tree devotion (below).

Leader or all together:  Loving Father, we thank you that our waiting is over. We thank you for the gift of your dear Son. Help us to share your gift with the whole world and to show Christ's light and love to others; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
(Or, the Lord's Prayer and a Collect for the Nativity of Our Lord)

If a meal is to follow, the usual grace before meals is said.

Click here for a different way of keeping the Advent wreath tradition that is especially appropriate for children and highlights several of the saints of Advent.



The Jesse TreeJesse Tree, St .Denis, Paris, 12th cent.,image © Alison Stones

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:1-3)

Stained glass, stone and wood carving, painted walls, and embroidered tapestries were the Bibles of the unlettered people of the Middle Ages. Even the lessons read in church were out of reach because they were in Latin, so the average medieval Christian depended on preachers and story-tellers and, most especially, on artists to learn the stories of their faith. The truth is that medieval Christians probably knew the stories of both the Old and the New Testaments better than many modern Christians who can read, but do not read the Bible. The Jesse Tree, which illustrates the text above from the prophet Isaiah, was a very familiar and popular image. On the right, in a brightly colored 12th century window from the Church of St. Denis, Paris, is old Jesse at the bottom, asleep in his bed as his family tree literally grows from his body. Above him is his son, King David, then his grandson King Solomon. Next, skipping several generations, is another royal descendant, perhaps the good King Hezekiah, and then the Blessed Virgin Mary and, at the very top, her Son Jesus, the shoot upon whom Isaiah said the Spirit of the Lord would rest. In fact, the Spirit is there, in the sevenfold manifestation of the doves of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear of the Lord, and delight. Furthermore, on either side of the family tree are some of the prophets who foretold the flowering of this tree:  Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, of course, and others. An even more abbreviated tree, carved in ivory in Bavaria, is see at the left:  from Jesse springs David, and then, directly, Jesus, again surrounded by doves, and with a single prophet on either side.

Tree of Jesse, Bavaria, c. 1200Like the much longer genealogies of Jesus found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Jesse Tree is a wonderful device for teaching two things: the great stories of the redemption of the people of God before Jesus and the important concept of God's eternal plan that stretches back to the beginning of time, as well as forward to the end of time. While the medieval Jesse Tree focused on a smaller window of time, from Jesse to Jesus, the Gospel genealogies are more inclusive. Matthew begins with Abraham, and Luke goes all the way back to Adam. We are not sure when people began using the Jesse Tree as an Advent activity or devotion, but it is one we highly recommend. Modern Jesse Trees have generally taken the lead of the Gospels and begin with Adam and Eve, the ancestors of us all. Some go a step further, and include the story of the creation of the world. The number of people who are included varies and, since the length of Advent varies, a little flexibility is necessary, though we find it curious that many modern Jesse Trees actually skip over Jesse!

There are a variety of ways to make a Jesse Tree. An evergreen tree, or an artificial version of an evergreen, may be used as a Jesse Tree in Advent and then, with a change or addition of ornaments, as a Christmas tree. A branch of a tree may be cut and anchored in a pail of soil or sand. Our "tree" takes the form of a branching vine, fashioned from garlands of artificial greenery purchased in a craft store and tacked to a wall. We liked this arrangement because it allowed us to maintain some of the features of medieval Jesse Trees, where the line of Jesse grows up the central branch, showing the direct line of the family of Jesus. As in medieval versions, one of the side branches is set aside for prophets and the other side branch represents the more modern approach that adds the history of salvation before Jesse, from the creation at the base, through Abraham and his descendants, and on to early Israelite figures who were not forebears of the Davidic line. We obtained our ornaments from Stained Glass Needle, which markets three different styles of ornaments and also provides a booklet with a reading, commentary, and questions for reflection for each day of Advent. Several other resources are available in books and online with ideas and patterns for making your own ornaments, schedules of readings, and other helpful material. A children's book by Geraldine McCaughrean has a story a day about the carving of a modern Jesse Tree. The possibilities are endless. We offer our own Jesse Tree devotion below. We also have a Jesse Tree Advent Calendar online: just click here.

   


Symbol of the
Blessed Virgin Mary,
mother of Jesus
(from Stained Glass Needle}

 

 


Joseph's coat of
many colors
(from Stained Glass Needle}

A Daily Jesse Tree Devotion

Leader: There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Isaiah 11:1)

Hang an ornament on the Jesse Tree and sing:

O come, thou Branch of Jesse's stem,
From every foe deliver them
That trust thy mighty power to save,
And give them vict'ry o'er the grave.
Refrain:  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel
               Shall come to thee, O Israel!

Read the Lesson for the day. Someone appointed may then give a brief reflection or explanation of the reading. Since one of the purposes of the Jesse Tree is to teach the history of salvation, it is especially important that children have an opportunity to learn more about the story and the symbol. Some Advent resource books provide questions for reflection.

Leader, or all together: Eternal Father, we thank you for all of the people who have been part of your plan of salvation from the very beginning of the world. As we remember all that you have done to prepare for our salvation, help us to be prepared to receive your Son Jesus Christ when he comes, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, both now and for ever. Amen.

The Lord's Prayer may also be said and, if a meal is to follow, the usual grace before meals.


A Table of Suggested Lessons and Symbols for the Jesse Tree

The earliest Sunday on which Advent can begin is November 27th. When it begins later than that, either drop one or more of the starred (*) days, or double up as many days as are necessary. Always add Ruth to the tree on December 9th, and continue on from there to the end of Advent.
Day Person Theme Reading Symbol
First Sunday
of Advent
  Jesse Tree Isaiah 11:1-3 Tree
Monday   Creation Genesis 1:1-3, 26-31 Sun and Moon
Tuesday Adam & Eve Sin Genesis 3:1-24 Apple & Snake
Wednesday Noah The Flood Genesis 6:11-19; 7:11-12;
8:6-11
Ark or
Dove & Olive Branch
Thursday Abraham The Promise Genesis 12:1-7 Tent & Camel or
Field of Stars
Friday Isaac Sacrifice of Isaac Genesis 22:1-14 Altar & Ram
* Jacob Jacob's Dream Genesis 28:10-22 Ladder
* Joseph God's Providence Genesis 37:1-28; 45:1-11 Joseph's Coat
* Moses God Calls Moses Exodus 3:1-14 Burning Bush
* Balaam God Blesses his People Numbers 22:4-6, 21-35;
24:1-2, 15-17
Donkey
* Joshua The Fall of Jericho Joshua 2:1, 8-18;
6:1-5, 15-17
Ram's Horn Trumpet or
City Wall with Scarlet Cord
* Gideon Victory against Odds Judges 7:1-21 Clay Pitcher
December 9 Ruth Foreign Ancestress Ruth 1:1-18; 3:1-9;
4:13-17
Sheaf of Wheat
December 10 Jesse Root of the Family Tree 1 Samuel 16:1-13 Tree Stump with New Shoot
December 11 David Shepherd King 2 Samuel 5:1-12 Shepherd's Crook
December 12 Nathan A Royal House 2 Samuel 7:1-17 Prophet's Scroll
December 13 Solomon Wisdom on the Throne 1 Kings 3:3-15 Crown
December 14 Elijah Rejecting False Gods 1 Kings 18:17-39 Altar and Lightning
December 15 Isaiah Prophet of the Advent Isaiah 6:1-11 Advent Rose or Throne
December 16 Hezekiah A Faithful King 1 Kings 18:1-8 Broken Idol
December 17 Jeremiah A New Covenant Jeremiah 31:31-34 Heart
December 18 Haggai Splendor Renewed Haggai 2:1-9 Temple
December 19 Habakkuk Watchfulness Habakkuk 2:1-4 Watchtower
December 20 Micah A Ruler from Bethlehem Micah 5:2-4 Town of Bethlehem
December 21 John the Baptist Forerunner of the Messiah Luke 3:1-17 Dove Descending to Water
December 22 Gabriel The Annunciation Luke 1:26-38 Angel or Lily
December 23 Joseph Trusting God's Plan Matthew 1:18-24 Carpenter's Tools
December 24
(morning)
Mary Mother of God Luke 1:46-55 Lily or
MARIA Monogram
Christmas Eve Jesus Christ Christ is Born Luke 2:1-20 Manger
Christmas Day Emmanuel The Word Made Flesh John 1:1-18 Chi Rho Monogram

 

Preparing the Manger and the Crèche

A much simpler, but very beautiful Advent custom comes from France where children prepare a manger to be a bed for the Christ Child. Throughout Advent, for every act of kindness and for every sacrificial act, a child places a piece of straw in the manger, so that the infant Jesus will have a soft warm bed to sleep in on Christmas.  We suggest that a good time of day for this would be just before a child says his or her prayers at bedtime in order to draw a connection between praying and doing. This custom could also be incorporated to the observance of Advent at church, particularly if the children perform a pageant at Christmas. The empty manger for the pageant might be set up at the beginning of Advent in a prominent place in the church or in the church school rooms, with a supply of straw nearby. When the children are gathered for prayers, they could add straw as they share concerns and talk about the things they have done in the past week to be kind to others and to help those in need. Even a small church school ought to have a very comfortable bed of hay prepared for the baby Jesus by Christmas.

It is also appropriate, especially for children who will have a more difficult time grasping the apocalyptic aspects of Advent to begin preparing the crèche about a week before Christmas, perhaps on December 16th as the Great O Antiphons begin. The stable can be set up in its usual place, with the cow who lives there and the empty manger. In the meantime, Mary and Joseph and the donkey should be set in another part of the house as they begin their journey to Bethlehem. Each day, they should move a little closer to the stable, finally arriving on Christmas Eve. After attending Christmas Eve services, the figure of Jesus may be placed in the manger.

Las Posadas

In Mexico, the journey to Bethlehem and the search for a place to stay is reenacted for nine days before Christmas. Posada is Spanish for shelter or lodging. Each night a party is held in a home of the neighborhood. At dusk, the whole community gathers. A child dressed as an angel and carrying a star leads the procession and other children carry figures of Mary and Joseph or may be dresssed as Mary and Joseph. Everyone carries candles and sings as they walk along. Sometimes stops are made at different homes where they are turned away. Finally, arriving at the designated house, some of the guests go inside, while others stay outside with the children. There is a dialogue between the participants, at the end of which everyone is welcomed into the home for a festive time. There is plenty of food and drink and the evening usually includes a piñata (a container made of paper mache and filled with candy) for the children. The piñata for this occasion may be shaped like a lamb, recalling the shepherds who came to visit the newborn Child, or like a star, to recall the star that guided the wise men to the infant Jesus. It is hung from the ceiling and the children take turns being blindfolded and attempting to break it open with a stick.  Here is a link to a painting of a posada by Carmen Lomas Garza, a Chicana narrative artist.


Advent Calendars

The Advent calendar is another custom that originated in Germany, in the late 19th century. The first printed Advent calendars appeared around 1908. A typical Advent calendar is a scene with many windows cut into it. The windows are numbered and one is opened each day. Behind the windows are pictures, sometimes opaque so that light can shine through them. The pictures may be religious or secular, but point to Christmas. Generally, the last picture is a Nativity scene. We have created our own online Advent Calendar. Here is another, created by the Institute for Christian Formation. Theirs continues into the Christmas season.

Although it is not exactly an Advent calendar, we recommend a children's Advent book that is structured like an Advent Calendar. It is Antonie Schneider's Advent Storybook: 24 Stories to Share Before Christmas. As Benjamin Bear opens the windows of his Advent calendar at bedtime, his mother tells the short story beind the scene in the window. Each story ends with a simple moral. We especially like it because it makes Advent about doing and not just about waiting.

Our friends at Convivio Bookworks have introduced us to something that might be described as a hybrid of the Advent Calendar and the Advent Wreath: the Advent Candle. Like the Advent Calendar, it counts each day of Advent (beginning on December 1st). But instead of opening windows on a page, the days are counted by burning the candle down, like the candles of the Advent Wreath. The candle might be used by itself. Or it could be placed in the center of the Advent Wreath and on Christmas it would be replaced with a fresh white candle. Since it only counts the days, without providing any material for meditation, it could also be used in conjunction with a Jesse Tree. Lots of possibilities.


The Floor-Banging Liturgy

We are always on the lookout for homely traditions that work. One day, while looking through our visitor statistics, we discovered a blog called "Dappled Thoughts," with a detailed account of the James family's Advent observances. It is all worth a read, but we were particularly intrigued by several references to the "floor-banging liturgy." The full text of the liturgy is here. This really is a family liturgy. It is serious, but allows for levity. It involves most of the senses, including taste, touch, vision, and hearing--and it would be easy enough to incorporate the sense of smell. And there are roles for everyone to play. Most importantly, it is adaptable.
 

 

More about Advent on Full Homely Divinity:
                        The Saints of Advent
                        Hymns of Advent
                        A Devotion for the Last Days of  Advent

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