By Elizabeth Evans Hagan
Advent has always been a mystery to me. Maybe it is because I never celebrated it in the churches of my childhood, where we just rushed into singing every verse of “Joy to the World” the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Maybe it is because there is strangeness in getting all hyped up about waiting for the coming of the Christ child when we know that Christ has already been born.
Maybe it is because the themes of Advent are often not about the here and now, but of a “come, let’s dream” nature of words like joy, peace and love. The concrete is much easier for us to get our minds around.
Baptists, as whole, are new to the tradition — unlike our Catholic and mainline Protestant friends. Although we are catching on, many of us are still learning.
Frequently pastors like myself are asked the million-dollar question: “What does Advent mean?” After I explain it’s a worship series of devoting time to wait, not rushing to Christmas too soon, the next question is almost always, “Why can’t we sing Christmas carols till later on in the month?”
When you mess with people’s Christmas carols church life can get rocky, so be forewarned.
But last year, during our Advent Vespers services (a short Wednesday night gathering of collective singing, prayers and alternative Christmas giving around the theme of the week), we paid attention.
Not only did we sing a few Christmas carols just to make our souls feel a little better, but we stopped our weeks to say, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come” together.
We meditated on stories of the prophets waiting for the Messiah’s coming.
And a funny thing happened. Layers of Advent’s mystery began to unravel a little more to all of us.
I heard congregants speak of their need for quiet reflection time during the busy season. I heard others sigh deeply into the rest of the hour. I heard chatter of new “Advent” traditions planned for families.
At the end of the last service, two of my most faithful church members pulled me aside, at the door — the place, as my colleagues know, where some of the most authentic ministry takes place.
“No offense, pastor, but we’ve always disliked Christmas.”
“Oh, really?” I was a bit scared about what was to come next.
“Tensions with our extended family are high. Our beloved parents are deceased. We don’t have kids to bring joy to our house. Christmas has been something we’ve always just wanted to get through. But when we discovered Advent, here at church, we changed.”
“How so?” I asked.
“We realized Advent is a gift of a fresh start. And we really, really need that.”
There’s got to be a reason that the traditional Advent words are love, peace, hope and joy: we all need more of these things in our lives if we are ever going to attempt anything new.
Advent’s calling is about beating the world to celebrations of “Happy New Year” and reorienting ourselves into the world order of the kingdom of God. It’s about listening to God in newer ways than we did the previous year. It’s about finding renewed courage for all that is to come.
There’s a lot of talk that goes around church circles this time of year about countercultural Christmas activities like making cookies for shut-ins and firemen and giving gifts to family and friends that benefit social causes, but what if Advent’s truest calling is about a deep reflective shift?
What if the mystery of Advent is that it begins realizing how much more of the gift of the Christ child we all need in our lives? What if Advent is the time and space to remember our own incarnation as a beloved child of God?
Who knows what the New Year will bring? Thank goodness we have a month to get prepared!