Happy Advent! Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season of preparation and reflection for the birth of Christ. The early Church celebrated Advent as a time for repenting for the darkness in our lives and in the world and a time to hope for Christ to come as the light in our darkness.
We prepare for everything in life. Some of us prepare well and in a timely manner, others do not prepare and are rushing in at the last minute to be sure everything is done. Still others like me, prepare, procrastinate, and prepare so that in the end my ability to be flexible gets the job done. Advent, like most spiritual journeys in life, can mirror our human experience, using the preparations for Christmas as spiritual jewels to magnify God’s Spirit at work in us. The holiday season is a huge time of preparation, whether you are a Christian or not. So, why not acknowledge that we are body, mind and spirit and take some time to spiritually and mentally prepare for the Christmas season.
Celebrating Advent can seem like just another thing to cross off our “to do” list. It can be that way if we let it. Let me share with you some of the ways I prepare for Christmas through the celebration of Advent.
As a family, we set up some type of Advent wreath. Some years it was the traditional green wreath with three purple candles and one pink one. One year, when I was feeling like an energetic and creative homeschooling Mom, we created a large pine cone wreath, decorated with a combination of greens, Christmas bows and four candle holders, which held three purple and one pink candle. However, on more than one Advent season, we grabbed whatever four candles we had stuck in a drawer and stuck them on the table for the four weeks before Christmas.
Traditionally, there is some type of reflections, readings and prayers that are offered at dinner. Depending on the ages of my kids, the complexity and/or the sheer existence of dinner, we might start our time with a song, (with harmony of course), read a scripture and pray with joyful expectation for the Lord Jesus to be born again in our hearts. Again, I started that last sentence with depending. There were certainly times that we simply lit the candle, said grace and ate. It has been a 26-year work in progress!
This is the first year that we purchased our Advent wreath candles before the first Sunday of Advent! I crossed that off my list early! I also ordered a new Advent wreath. Don’t be too impressed. Today is Sunday and I ordered it on Thursday. Tonight, we will be lighting one purple candle, with no wreath. Rest assured though, Johanna, with her love for worship and song, will lead all of us through at least on verse of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”
Another Advent tradition in our home is the setting up of the manger. We reverently hide the baby Jesus in a drawer and he doesn’t come out till Christmas morning. Then we set up the animals in the manger, with Mary and Joseph travelling on their way. The three kings are set up in another room, slowly moving toward the manager, for the feast of Epiphany. Although we set up the manger for the first Sunday of Advent, it never stayed in perfect position. We always encouraged the kids to play with the characters in the manger and frequently found Mary and Joseph and the three kings flipped upside down or riding in a Tonka truck or a Barbie car. And inevitably Jesus came out of hiding only to be placed in his Mother’s arms. To my husband and me, it was more important that our children imagine themselves in the Christmas miracles than memorize a perfect scene without them.
Over the next few weeks, I will share some themes of Advent and ways to grow deeper in our faith as we see these themes operating in our lives. This week’s theme is expectation; as we wait for the Lord to come.
Ask any child to describe what the weeks leading up to Christmas mean to them and the word, expectation is sure to cover it all. Children are excited for Christmas. They anticipate and dream about the many good gifts to come. There may also be apprehension about Santa’s list and why does he have to check it twice! Children expect good things at Christmas.
For all of us, the word expectation aptly describes our experiences of preparing for Christmas. Some of our expectations may also be rooted in our good and not so good childhood memories of Christmas past. The excitement of decorating, for example can be a wonderful experience or it can drive us to compulsive perfectionism. I am so grateful to have a husband who appreciates art and beauty and he has always been the decorator in our home. While I contribute ideas, I am just not the one to make it happen. He loves doing it and we reap the benefits of his creative energy. Then there’s the expectation of gift giving; oh my. That’s a big expectation in some families and costly one too. Retail stores in America look with great expectation towards the holiday season to bring them out of the red and into the black, from a financial point of view.
In this first week of Advent, on December 6th, we celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas. Our modern day Santa is based on stories of St. Nicholas, who was a beloved and wonderful Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). He was born in Asia Minor in A.D. 260 and orphaned at an early age. Stories of the generosity and kindness of this Bishop travelled far and wide and provided the basis for the folk tale of Santa Claus. St Nicholas taught us in his life and legend to expect God to answer our prayers. In our home, we celebrate this feast by placing our shoes outside our rooms, expecting St Nicholas to fill them with chocolate coins during the night. We also read stories and look at icons of the miracles of St Nicholas. The combination of these playful games and the serious reflection helps to increase our expectation in Advent as we wait for Christ to come.
We all have expectations of the holiday season. We can use this season of Advent to reflect on these experiences of expectation. Try to take a few moments this week and ask your family and yourselves “What do I expect God to do for me and what does God expect me to do for myself and others?” Reflect on these words from Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe; plans to give you a future full of hope.”
However you prepare during the season of Advent, celebrate the season with great expectation knowing that God has good things in store for you!
Eileen Benthal has a B.A. in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer, speaker and wellness coach at 40DaysToFocus.com and NOFO Wellness Center. She works with clients locally and around the U.S. who are excited about balancing their health in body, mind and spirit.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, 16-year-old Johanna, is a teenager with special needs. Eileen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org andfacebook.com/40DaysToFocus.