As a child, I was always very excited about Christmas. I was raised in a largely secular home, so other than a polite nod to Jesus, the focus of the season was family, food, and presents. (I will leave it to your intuition to guess which was the favorite for a child!). Once I began my journey into adulthood, however, the celebration of Christmas began to disappoint. Changes in family patterns and makeup meant the meals weren’t quite such a big deal, and the visits became fewer. And ironically, as the world surged more and more into materialism- and also encouraged the consumerism of the season- the gifts began to mean less too. Perhaps that’s because I am hard to buy for; perhaps it’s because I bought so much for myself. Whatever the case, the fact is that by my college years, the nostalgic Christmases of old were just that- nostalgia. Memories that could not be recreated. What saved Christmas for me then- and has sustained me ever sense- wasn’t Christmas. It was Advent.
Perhaps Christmas, with all the social pressures and expectations around it, has become difficult. Or lonely. Or sad. This is a hard place for people of faith to be in. In this article, we will turn our attention to some methods for practicing Advent in an attempt to both return some meaning to the Feast of the Nativity (and also recapturing it from the secular culture) and to celebrate this season in its own right: a season central to the story of what it means to be a Christian.
Advent: A Primer
Advent (which literally means “to come”) is a four-week season at the start of the Christian liturgical year that precedes Christmas. While it is hard to say with any certainty when the observance began, historical records show that it was in existence in a basic form by 480 AD. It has as it’s focus the coming of Christ twice- both in his birth and also at his return. As such, the season has an inherit tension within it: on the one hand waiting in joyful expectation, while, on the other, there is some emphasis on penitence, preparation and fasting, much like Lent. Like Lent as well, it is a season with large ecumenical appeal. Many denominations and traditions who do not adhere to the liturgical calendar have nonetheless found great value in re-introducing Advent observances. For the purposes of our reflection in this article, we will consider Advent under the themes of remembering, waiting, and hoping, along with some select practices that may help this time of the year be spiritually enriching for us.
Remembering in Advent
The rush of our lives and our hyper-connectedness mean that in some sense we live apart from history. We can be cut off- emotionally or geographically- from the stories that shape us. Practices centered around remembering the story of redemption can help to counteract our feeling of being disconnected from who we are as Christians and who is coming at Christmas.
Ideas include focusing our Scripture reading and meditations on the prophetic promise of a messiah (try Isaiah for starters, or make use of a lectionary for Advent- these tend to focus on such themes.); making a point to listen to or watch the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which is a liturgical expression of remembering this story; listening to Handel’s Messiah; or perhaps meditating/journaling on the words of key Advent hymns like O Come, O Come Emmanuel or Creator of the Stars at Night. These practices vary, as you can see. Pick the ones that help you. The key is to engage in intentional remembering as we prepare for the birth of Christ. Have kids? A Jesse tree is a good way to get them involved in such remembering, and properly chosen Advent Calendars are often focused on this aspect as well, as opposed to just chocolate or crafts for Christmas.
Waiting in Advent
Expectant mothers tell me the waiting is the hardest part- particularly in the final, uncomfortable months. But you can’t hurry up a baby. Christmas- being about an infant, as it is- is like that: you can’t rush it. Hence, the spiritual practices surrounding waiting. The primary waiting we can engage in is to not “force the birth”: avoid decorating too soon (many in earlier years waited until Christmas Eve, maybe we can wait until Third Advent?), play Advent music as opposed to Christmas carols, and perhaps save the most festive celebrations for the Twelve Days of Christmas- December 25 to January 6. This will have the added benefit of distinguishing us from the secular culture a bit. Above all, try to be intentional about slowing down inside with more reflection and meditation, as the culture and commitments will allow, and by making your Advent devotions a priority.
Use of a creche, or Nativity scene, can also help us to wait. Allowing it to be one of our central decorations as opposed to the Christmas tree can keep our focus on waiting. This is particularly effective if we slowly “populate” it throughout the season: Mary and Joseph can “travel” throughout the house nearer and nearer, as can the shepherds. Jesus appears on December 25, with the Magi last to arrive on January 6. Such imaginative re-enactment with the manger scene can be great fun for kids, and is certainly better than the “Elf-on-a-Shelf” of secular society. Whatever we do, the key is watchful waiting in anticipation.
Hoping in Advent
If we remember the promise of the first coming of Our Lord, we hope for the second. Indeed, the remembering helps us to hope, for the One who is coming at the end of the age is the One who already came, a friend and not a stranger. We need not fear, as some popular apocalyptic would have us to do: the present may be dark, but the future is bright- bright with the Light of Christ.
Using an Advent Wreath can provide a visual and devotional focus for our hope. During these dark days- literally dark in the Northern Hemisphere- a new light is dawning, and we see it, candle-by-candle. The readings and prayers that accompany each candle can link our hope to remembrance and our remembrance to hope. Again, it can also provide a decorative focus for our homes until it is time to prepare for Christmas.
Part of hoping in Advent can also involve being the light for others. This time of year abounds in opportunities for outreach and charity- and that’s a place where we can joyfully join in with our secular friends. To feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, visit the lonely and prisoners- all of this incarnates the Kingdom of the One Who Is To Come. When we do this, it is not only prophetic, it gives hope to others, and encourages us to believe in that day where sorrow and sighing will be no more as well.
As I said, Advent breathed new life into Christmas for me as a young man, and perhaps these thoughts and devotions can help you if you are struggling with our cultural expressions of Christmas too. When we remember, wait, and hope- all focussed on God in Christ- we can transcend the loneliness, superficial consumerism, and faux celebrations of the season. For my part, when I placed my attention back on the story, the story brought the season back to life. May it do the same for you: a blessed Advent and a very merry Christmas!
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
- a four-week Advent has become the predominate one in the Western church. However, some calendars posited a six-week season, and some modern liturgical scholars even advocate for seven weeks, starting the Sunday after All Saints’ Day. The Eastern church has a similar tradition to Advent, the Nativity Fast, but is different in both practices and focus.  - Guéranger, Prosper; Fromage, Lucien; Shepherd, James Laurence (13 October 1867). "The liturgical year". Dublin : J. Duffy – via Internet Archive. - BBC Four broadcasts the famous service from King’s College, Cambridge every Christmas Eve. However, many others are already available on the internet, so it is now possible to be viewed and or listened to in sync with your own Advent plans. Even better, search specifically for Advent Lessons and Carols, as opposed to Christmas Lessons and Carols. - the history and lyrics of the hymn can be found at https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/occasions/christmas/lyrics-o-come-o-come-emmanuel-origins - see https://hymnary.org/text/creator_of_the_stars_of_night - this is a useful resource for the Jesse tree: https://www.faithward.org/jesse-tree  - resources for use with an Advent wreath can be found at: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/times-and-seasons/advent#mmm18. Don’t have a wreath? Make your own, YouTube has plenty of DIY videos.