by Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula for The Christian Citizen
The church calendar is an amazing resource to us as followers of Jesus. It helps us live into a different rhythm than that of the world around us. Like the classic Spirograph toy from our childhood, Christians observe repetitive seasons that focus our attention upon the things God is doing in the world through Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the church. With each passing cycle of a Spirograph ring, beautifully elaborate geometric shapes appear that gain depth and wonder with each rotation. Alternating colors or different starting points create even more variety. Observing the annual cycle of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost creates deeply rich impressions on our souls and lives.
Advent is a season between. Advent is about celebrating the coming of the Messiah in Jesus and the second coming of Christ. It is about living in such a way that we are honest about our grief while also living with hope. It is asking God to show up and expressing our gratitude for all the ways God is already present. Advent is a lot like dawn…it is neither night nor day. But like a watchman, we turn our back on the darkness and turn our face toward the eastern horizon in hope for coming light.
Light and darkness are woven into our Advent experience. Each week, we slowly light one candle at a time to gradually welcome the coming of the Messiah. To go straight into the light of Christ is overwhelming; there is preparation and work to do first to acclimate ourselves to what is to come. It is in this preparation that Advent allows us to acknowledge with honesty that all is not well, that we need restorative healing. Advent ends by proclaiming that the holy does in fact break into the ordinary, often in the most mundane ways. The Divine Word who breathed light and cosmic order into reality, broke into the world the same way we all do, through a womb. The raw, earthy, bloody reality of the incarnation opens the way to peace.
Advent is not a passive exercise of waiting on the spiritual park bench like Forrest Gump, recounting the story that brought us to the bench before we can move on with our lives. Advent is an active hunt for the holy in our midst like the shepherds and magi who searched until they found what was promised, returning to their ordinary lives with shouts of divine hope and peace on their lips. Like them, we are on a journey in search of the holy among the ordinary—an active pursuit of defiant hope in the midst of darkness.
The past year has given us all sorts of reasons to lament and to turn inward cradling our fears and anxiety. For many, it has diminished the light and brought to the edge of deep darkness. Advent calls us back from the brink. Advent is not about pretending darkness is not real; it is about knowing that light always overcomes darkness (Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16) and that in the New Heavens and New Earth the light of Christ perpetually shines (Revelation 21:22ff). Advent reminds us that perfect love drives out all fear (1 John 4:18). Advent invites us to begin life anew by turning our backs on the darkness and welcoming the coming light, in hope, peace, love, and joy.
To help our communities of faith lean into the light, many churches have created some sort of “Advent in a Bag,” including devotions for families, crafts, activities, movie/video links or suggestions, along with pre-made or make-your-own Advent wreaths with candles. This allows families and individuals to set up an Advent wreath in their home and create routines of lighting candles or doing daily activities. Some churches anticipate continuing to host mid-week services online only they will focus on the themes of Advent. Using a calendar where participants count down the days to Christmas can be a fun activity to look forward to each day in December. Churches might also consider running a social media campaign including images of Advent themes, Scripture, or conversation starters that identify and celebrate local examples of hope, joy, peace, and love.
Advent is what we do and who we are. With courageous honesty, we admit the world is indeed full of viruses without cures, racial injustice, political machinations, natural and unnatural disasters, nuclear weapons, and Lord help us all, murder hornets. This year of uncertainty has opened our eyes to the reality that we are not in control in ways we might have previously thought.
But we are a people who constantly look to the east in a hope-filled search for light. Advent shapes us into people of hope, love, joy, and peace. We look for the holy in the ordinary, we are in search of Emmanuel—God with us. We are followers of the Messiah who spoke light into the universe and then used the light of stars and angels to proclaim his presence in a manger.
Rev. Dr. Greg Mamula is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of Nebraska. He is author of Table Life: An Invitation to Everyday Discipleship, to be published by Judson Press. Visit table-life.org to learn more about his ministry and writing projects.
Photo by lee Scott on Unsplash