When the sermon started at Pine Valley Community Church last week, you could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather. Our interim pastor, Pastor Jim, started informing our church about Advent, and the topic of his sermons up until Christmas will be the significance of the four candles in the Advent wreath: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace, plus the central white candle, the Christ candle. This is a different set of meanings from the sobering Anglican tradition (Death, Judgment, Heaven [thus the lightening of the penitential purple candles to a rose-colored one], and Hell) as well as the evangelical tradition we observed at Lake Murray (Prophecy Candle, Bethlehem Candle, Shepherd Candle, Angel Candle).
As regular readers of this blog will know, celebrating the Christian Year is one of my passions, and Advent has been central to our family's devotional life since the kids were small. So I was thrilled beyond belief to have Advent being preached from the pulpit; I somehow managed to restrain myself from standing up and applauding mid-sermon. ;)
The term "Advent" means "coming" or "arrival" and refers to the first Incarnation of Christ as well as the expected second coming of Christ. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, which is the Sunday nearest to the Feast of Saint Andrew (November 30), and ends on Christmas Eve (Dec 24). If Christmas Eve is a Sunday, it is counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent with Christmas Eve proper beginning at sundown.
Advent also marks the beginning of the Church Year for most churches in the Western tradition.
We've been celebrating Advent since 2001 in our household. Keith made us the tabletop Advent wreath above, and through the years we have celebrated Advent with different materials. We read through the adventure books Jotham's Journey and Tabitha's Travels which tell an adventure story that ends on December 24th at the manger and the birth of the Christ Child. We've also used a little book called Christ in the Carols, a devotional with the lyrics to and the background of each carol with a closing meditation and prayer. We've used the Scripture readings from Focus on the Family or the Lectionary from the Book of Common Prayer. As the kids grow up, each year we do something slightly different.
Each family member has his/her turn to light the Advent candle(s) in the wreath and to read the Scripture from the Advent calendar wall hanging Keith's sister made for us with 25 hand-embroidered pockets for candy/gifts and a laminated Scripture verse attached to each one.
The Book of Common Prayer 2011 has the Collect for the First Sunday in Advent which is to be prayed during the Advent season until Christmas Day:
FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, now during this present life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, so that at the last day when he will come again in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to eternal life; Through him who lives and rules with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen. (References: Romans 13.12; 2 Timothy 4.1; Philippians 2.5-8; 1 Thessalonians 4.16-17)
Advent is richly symbolic. The light of the candles reminds us that Jesus is “the light of the world” and that we are also called to “walk in the light, as He is in the light.” The purple of the candles symbolizes the royalty of Christ, the Almighty who “made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” The rose candle reminds us that hope and peace are near, available only through God. The white candle, the Christ candle, recalls Christ’s holiness, purity – He who was without sin who died for the sins of all. The greenery, symbolizing abundant life, surrounds a circular wreath – never ending, eternal life. The red of the holly berries reminds us of His blood to be shed on the cross for us.
The origins of the Advent wreath are found in the folk practices of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples who, during the cold December darkness of Eastern Europe, gathered wreaths of evergreen and lighted fires as signs of hope in a coming spring and renewed light. Christians kept these popular traditions alive, and by the 16th century Catholics and Protestants throughout Germany used these symbols to celebrate their Advent hope in Christ, the everlasting Light. From Germany the use of the Advent wreath spread to other parts of the Christian world. Traditionally, the wreath is made of four candles in a circle of evergreens. Three candles are violet and the fourth is rose. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent.
Historically, the primary sanctuary color of Advent is purple, the color of penitence and fasting as well as the color of royalty to welcome the Advent of the King. The purple of Advent is also the color of suffering used during Lent and Holy Week which points to an important connection between Jesus’ birth and death: The Nativity, the Incarnation, cannot be separated from the Crucifixion. The purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world, of the "Word made flesh" and dwelling among us, is not only to reveal God and His grace to the world through Jesus’ life and teaching, but also through his suffering, death, and resurrection.
To reflect this emphasis, originally Advent was a time of penitence and fasting, much as the Season of Lent and so shared the purple color of Lent. In the four weeks of Advent, the third Sunday came to be a time of rejoicing that the fasting was almost over (in some traditions it is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for "rejoice"). The shift from the purple of the Season to pink or rose for the third Sunday Advent candles reflected this lessening emphasis on penitence as attention turned more to celebration of the season.
The focus of the entire season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ in his First Advent, and the anticipation of the return of Christ the King in his Second Advent. Thus, Advent is far more than simply marking a 2,000 year old event in history; it is celebrating a truth about God, the revelation of God in Christ whereby all of creation might be reconciled to God. This is a process in which we now participate, and the consummation of which we anticipate. Scripture readings for Advent reflect this emphasis on the Second Advent, including themes of accountability for faithfulness at His coming, judgment of sin, and the hope of eternal life in this double-focus on past and future.
Advent also symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation as they affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in the world today, and that He will come again in power and glory. That acknowledgment provides a basis for Kingdom ethics, for holy living arising from a profound sense that we live "between the times" and are called to be faithful stewards of what is entrusted to us as God’s people. So, as the church celebrates God’s in-breaking into history in the Incarnation and anticipates a future consummation to that history for which "all creation is groaning awaiting its redemption," it also confesses its own responsibility as a people commissioned to "love the Lord your God with all your heart" and to "love your neighbor as yourself."
The primary focus of Advent is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as we wait together to celebrate His birth, death, and glorious resurrection.
My favorite Advent devotional is Watching for the Light, and from it I have jotted down some wonderful quotations, including the one for this week:
"Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life, however, is Advent--that is, a time of waiting for the Ultimate."
So enjoy your family or church celebrations of the Advent season. I'm so glad I started the Advent tradition when our kids were fairly small so that it has become an important part of their childhood memories.
NOTE: I'm sorry that this blog has been practically silent since school began--it's been a truly crazy autumn with an overwhelming teaching load which caused a flare-up of my autoimmune illness. So here at last is a post--yay!! :)
Wishing you a blessed and holy Advent,