By MaryBeth Bratrud
When I think about Advent I am mostly indebted to my parents who worked diligently throughout each passing year to observe Advent as a season of waiting and preparation. One year we made a craft each day leading up to Christmas that represented the Old Testament lesson that day from our massive homemade felt Advent calendar; another year we practiced singing and memorizing carols and hymns to perform at church and nursing homes during the Christmas season. Whatever our Advent practice was that specific year, it was always a means of embodying the experience of waiting and cultivating a posture of preparation for Christmas day when we would wake up to the beautifully organized mounds of gifts our parents had been slowly and secretly purchasing with thoughtfulness and intention. Later that day, cousins and aunts and grandmas and grandpas would all join in for a holy feast. The Christmas story was read by my father and a birthday cake for Jesus baked by my mother. Always I remember knowing, very deep down, that all these Christmas presents were just a foretaste, a metaphor, a glimpse of the fullness to come.
The origin of Advent goes back to the 400’s as a season of fasting and preparation for the feast of Christmas. It wasn’t until the mid to late 500’s that official scriptural texts and prayers were selected and written as part of the Sundays leading up to Christmas. But Advent was not only a time of preparation for Christ’s Nativity. It was also a season of preparation for the Second Coming when Christ will bring perfect peace to the ends of the earth and restore all things at last.
Advent is not just a historical season but an eschatological one. This is why fasting has traditionally been part of observing Advent. In our modern and consumeristic world, this kind of practice is incredibly counter-cultural. But prayerfully giving something up as simple as your favorite Christmas dessert during this pre-Christmas fast would help to differentiate between the season of preparation and the season of celebration. As K.C. Ireton writes, “By fasting in some way during Advent, we enter physically into the waiting and preparation that characterize this season, and we will more fully appreciate the feast of celebration that is Christmas — because we have waiting for it with our bodies as well as our hearts and minds.” Within the days of Advent are scattered a number of feast days like St. Nicholas’ Day and the Feast of St. Lucia. These days are times to lay aside the fast and have a foretaste of the hope that is coming. They are a reminder that though we wait for the fullness of Christ, we have been given much of his promises already. We can see the Holy Spirit at work even in this age.
I think the posture of fasting during Advent is one of making room for the fullness that Christ wants to bring. So often there is simply no room in the inns of our hearts — our desires hav been dulled and our longings lulled by the things of earth that ought to be orienting us towards God but have instead become distractions or worse, idols. The practice of fasting is the recognition that we are prone to wander, that our desires are disordered, and that our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. One of the practices I have implemented the past couple of years is taking a kind of “fast” from social media during Advent. This practice both protects me from the secular agendas of consumerism and chronic discontent that are heightened during this season and also makes room in my days to slow down and contemplate the hope of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection in the midst of a broken world. The color of Advent is purple which is the color of repentance. As Advent actually begins the Church calendar, we are called to walk into this new year together as a community in a place of contemplative reflection and repentance. It is a collective call to reorder our desires and to allow the desire for God to reign supreme in our hearts.
Below are some resources I have found inspiring and enriching to bring depth and life to the season of Advent. Some of the resources are just wonderful devotionals and others are more interactive and great for including children into the wonder of Advent. I hope this list, though not even close to being exhaustive, is helpful as you begin to ponder how to make this season rich with meaning and spiritually formative for you and your family. Resources:
1. Unwrapping the Greatest Gift and The Wonder of the Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp This book has been one of our favorites for many, many years. The devotional story book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift goes along with the pop up Jesse tree book The Wonder of the Greatest Gift as you walk through the overarching narrative of the Old Testament through Advent and add a paper ornament each day to the Jesse tree. Children love the anticipation as you work from the Garden of Eden all the way to Bethlehem during Advent.
2. Hallelujah: Cultivating Advent Traditions with Handel’s Messiah by Cindy Rollins A wonderful book full of Advent celebration ideas which walks you and your family through listening to Handel’s Messiah during Advent.
3. To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration by Gertrud Mueller Nelson This book is a great resource for understanding the history and philosophy of liturgy and formation and the beauty of observing the whole church calendar. It’s full of ideas and stories of how to imbue the feast days with meaning.
4. The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Calendar by K.C. Ireton Another book full of resources and ideas for observing the church calendar. This is one of my favorites.
5. The Vigil: Keeping Watch in the Season of Christ’s Coming by Wendy M. Wright Wendy talks at length about the church calendar and weaves in ideas from the Medieval Christmas masses as well as stories from scripture and her own life to talk about the power and beauty of Advent.
6. Waiting on the Word: a Poem a day for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Malcom Guite Waiting on the Word a treasure of a devotional. I look forward to reading through these poems and Guite’s lovely reflections on each poem during the days of both Advent and Christmas. This is a great resource for personal devotions but would also be a wonderful evening read as a family.
7. Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas published by Plough This devotional includes selected writings from some of the greatest thinkers and writers of the faith from St. Aquinas to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and many more). A wonderful resource to challenge your mind and heart in the weeks of Advent and Christmas.
8. The Irrational Seasaon by Madeline L’Engle L’Engle was one of the most profound and prophetic writers of the 21st Century. Her Crosswicks Journals, of which this is a part, is her own biography of sorts in which she recounts and retells her journey of faith. In this book she reflects on faith through the seasons of the Church year. A beautiful non-fiction work for the literary folk.
9. On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius
This is probably one of the most important books of the Christian faith. I highly recommend the one that is part of the Popular Patristics Series which includes the introduction by C.S. Lewis.