Sunday, November 27, 2011

What is an Advent Sunday?

Today is the first Advent Sunday! There are four Advent Sundays leading up to Christmas Day. Today is also the first day of the church year. Interestingly, though, today is not the first day of the Christmas Season. Christmas begins on... Christmas Day - and lasts 12 days. It ends on Christmastide, January 5th.

The word "advent" means "coming," connected to the idea of arrival, appearance, emergence, occurrence, birth, rise, development, approach. The church has for well over a thousand years celebrated the advent or birth or arrival of Christ by marking out the four Sundays before it as a season of preparation.

The church re-enters into the Nativity Story, imagining in a way that we are participants with Mary and Elizabeth, Simon and Joseph and others who sensed that God was about to appear in a new and radical way.

As you consider your life, don't you think you would benefit from some time of reflection on what the significance of God's advent as an infant? Do we assume we have a rich and robust grasp on the Incarnation? How could we spend four Sundays preparing for the celebration on Christmas Day of God becoming one of us?

When we consider the Advent of Christ, it carries two meanings. We remember the birth of Jesus, born into poverty, under the tyranny of a vicious king. We also remember the promise of Jesus that he would return, that he will come again, that there will be another, final, advent. The church starts the new year with four Sundays to consider the promises - then and now - of what the coming King Jesus will do when he arrives.

It's likely that the bewilderment and controversy that surrounded Jesus the first time he came will follow him the second time around. Maybe we need the four Sundays to remind us of how much we don't understand. Of our need for help when it comes to believing. 

We think we understand the First and Second Advent of Christ. We need our Sundays to point us to Jesus - to help us understand what he actually said and did. The life of Jesus shapes our understanding of the Advent that was, and the Advent to come.

Advent Sundays are not a substitute for celebrating Christmas. The church celebrates Christmas for twelve days. Advent Sundays point to Christmas, they challenge our understanding of Christmas, but they are not part of the Christmas season. 

Some of us are sick of Christmas by the time we get to December 25th. We've spent so much time shopping and partying and stressing and getting wrapped up in the drama of family dysfunction around the holidays that Jesus gets the shaft.

Really, how much of your Christmas energies go into worship of Jesus? Attending a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service is the classic way of worshiping the newborn King. But that is supposed to be the beginning of twelve days of worship, not the exhausted end.

There is plenty of material out there on how to prepare yourself during these four weeks of Advent. To the degree that you are interested in keeping Christ in Christmas, don't let your busyness cause you to push the baby Jesus off to the side. Keep it simple. Keep it intentional. Keep it focused on Jesus.

Some suggestions:
* Read each Gospel - one a week, leading up to Christmas Day. (There are about 20ish chapters in each Gospel, read up to three chapters a day)

* List out all your questions about Jesus and his teachings on a piece of paper, and put it in your Bible. As you read through each Gospel, add to your list. Trust me, most of what you will read about Jesus will cause more questions. It should.

* Do some research into the history behind the Christmas hymns that we sing each year. Or the traditions that we observe each year. Or the origins of the Santa Claus myth.

* Spend time reflecting on your unconfessed sins each Sunday morning or evening The greatest gift you can give God and others and yourself is truth about the sins you hang on to, the sins you won't forgive - in yourself, and others. To forgive and let yourself be forgiven is the true fulfillment of Christmas.

* Look for a way to give away something good everyday. A good word, a good attitude, a good ear, a good hand, a good prayer - as prompted by the Spirit of Christ.

* Find a way to integrate Jesus into everything you do during what you consider the Christmas Season.

* Don't go in debt to buy presents for people as a celebration of Jesus' birth.

* Pray the Lord's Prayer everyday - and reflect on how God's Kingdom has come through the First Advent, and will come in full with the Second Advent.

* Eagerly desire to let poverty into your life. Either take a vow of poverty, or give away your possessions such that you only have the bare necessities, or become friends with those who are poor. Jesus was born into poverty, lived in poverty, ministered amongst the poor, taught the poor, loved the poor.

* Put a Nativity scene in your front yard.

* Make your own list of how you will live this December in light of the Advent of Jesus?

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