The word “advent” comes from “ad” meaning “to” as well as from “vent,” a form of a Latin word meaning “coming.” Think of the first word in: veni vidi vici—I came, I saw, I conquered. So: to come. For many Christians, the first Sunday in Advent—November 29 in 2020—marks the beginning of the Christian new year. Advent is the season when Christians look back and look forward; we look back on the first advent, or coming, of Messiah, and we look forward to the second advent—his return. During the four weeks leading up to Christmas, many believers observe Advent as a season of expectant waiting, during which we prepare our hearts.
Two millennia ago as Israel awaited their Messiah, Herod—the kind of guy who ordered the killing of his own son—sat on the throne in Judea. Roman soldiers occupied Palestine and squashed the slightest hint of uprising with violence. Four hundred years had passed since the prophet Malachi promised that the Sun of Righteousness would rise with healing in its wings. That is a long time to go without a major prophetic word from God! Had the Lord abandoned his people? Would Messiah really show up?
Advent reenacts that longing and waiting. In a few traditions, congregants even hold off singing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” till midnight on Christmas Eve. In both the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, Christmastide, commonly called the Twelve Days of Christmas, lasts twelve days, from 25 December to 5 January, the latter date being Twelfth Night (hence the title of the Shakespeare play by the same name). Those twelve days are the time to really focus on Christmas, crowned by Epiphany on January 6. (You’ll recall that many Christians actually observe Christmas on January 6.) So while many of us are boxing up ornaments, wreaths, and trees in the aftermath of the season, our brothers and sisters elsewhere are at the height of celebration with bells ringing and the aroma of greenery and Christmas pudding in the air.
Whatever our traditions, most of us can do a better job of “preparing Him room.” We too easily get sucked into the vortex of shopping and spending. So, how can we make the season more focused on Christ, especially in a year during which we are more conscious than usual of our need for true hope? Doing so requires being intentional. So invest 30 minutes today or tomorrow in making this year great by nailing down some choices:
- Choose a reading plan. The YouVersion Bible app has a number of Advent options you can follow for free. My students and I wrote a YouVersion Advent study this year titled “Advent Chai with Malachi,” which walks readers through the Book of Malachi with a focus on the Messiah to come. You can sign up today for the “plan” to begin on November 29. If you “friend” me via the app, we can participate in community. You can also purchase a print version of Advent Chai with Malachi for $3.99 on Amazon. The print version includes instructions and prayers that accompany use of the Advent wreath. I also love my copy of Fleming Rutledge’s Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Rutledge is one of my favorite author-theologians, and her book is full of Advent sermons and reflections. Figure out what you plan to do and sign up or order any needed resources today so you’ll be ready on November 29.
- Pull out or order your Advent wreath before Sunday. If you’re doing a wreath this year, you’ll need a wreath with four candleholders. Along with the wreath, purchase fresh candles, three purple and a solo pink one, with a large, white candle for the center that can stand on its own.
- Mark the days with a little ceremony. Advent wreaths and calendars help us focus on the weekly and daily countdowns to the day of celebration. I bought a lovely Advent calendar one year at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Note to self: I store it with the Christmas decorations, so I need to get the decorations down before December 15. Plan now for how you’ll make the days special.
- Make choices about charitable giving. Pray about how you can make the greatest impact. Collect coins and keep them handy, ready for the Salvation Army bell ringers. For food drives, clean out the pantry but also pick up a few canned goods you would love to see if you were on the receiving end. As for the larger contributions, decide soon what charitable organizations will receive your giving dollars. Charities will bombard you with requests. May we rejoice that so many organizations are doing good in the world! We don’t have to feel guilty for giving intentionally to a select few. We can offer words of encouragement to the rest.
- Plan gift giving. List the people to whom you’ll give gifts, and collect their wish lists. If your family exchanges gifts, ask people to tell you what they want. Making homemade gifts? Get started. And think about ways to give meaningfully. On my FaceBook page, I asked people with small businesses to post links to their products so my friends and I can support them. A family member might appreciate receiving Grandma’s cheeseball recipe with a taste-able sample. Fair-trade jewelry can delight the recipient while benefitting the makers. A goat given to an impoverished family is a great way to honor someone who already has plenty of ties (and isn’t wearing ties during this Zoom season, anyway). Give books that inspire, music that lifts the heart, and even cooking, knitting, or art classes. Experiences make the best gifts, so give experiences when you can. If you have no money, consider making gift certificates that recipients can later redeem for gifts of your time (“An afternoon feeding the ducks together,” “A trip to the library and Starbucks coffee”; or “Two hours of raking”). Or perhaps you can sell some used pottery, books, an old chair, or some of that junk in the garage to raise sufficient funds to give? Take ten minutes now to plan. Remember especially the teachers, neighbors, first-responders, house-cleaners, salon workers and/or delivery people in our life. And start ordering. Buy gift cards. Obtain crisp bills. Select food trays. Pre-order. Get done early what you can do now.
- Write to encourage. If you sponsor a child, write him or her a letter soon (it may take a while to arrive) and tuck inside the envelope a bookmark or Christmas stickers—something that mails easily. As for cards or letters to your own friends, will you send those this year? If so, place your order. If you want to send an annual letter, plan a time to write it; and keep it simple, warm, and humble. When you send that family photo, remember the reason for the season, and include that reason in your design. Order Christmas stamps from the post office web site. And while you’re working on cards and gifts, print out mailing labels, or pre-set everything so you can “send” your electronic greetings soon. You’ll thank yourself later.
- Fill your car with cheer. Carry some Granola bars and bottles of water for the homeless. And make an Advent playlist, including the “waiting” songs from Handel’s Messiah, so you can hum along during drive time.
- Make plans for connection. In the craziness of the season, some deeply hurting people get overlooked. And we have more than the usual number of losses this year. Consider who would appreciate a phone call. If your family isn’t gathering this year, go ahead and schedule a time for the family video-conference call so everyone can plan around the time and be present. Who can you invite?
- Cook ahead. Start freezing dough so you can throw a batch of cookies in the oven on a moment’s notice. Get the big mess out of the way so you can enjoy great sweets and smells later without the time drain and sloppy kitchen. Make the cheeseball this week and freeze it. Double up freezing some healthful appetizers and meals while you’re at it. Making chili? Create a double batch and freeze half so you can thaw it in the crockpot on one of those crazy days when you have too much going on.
- Schedule quiet time. In the same way you might schedule cooking and football time, mark off some days. Include time to reset your focus with regular prayer, instrumental music, stretching exercises, hot peppermint tea, and time to savor the tree with lights twinkling. If all the parties and pageants are cancelled, think about what new traditions you want to establish. Reading aloud from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol? Rolling and baking cookies together? Listening to the entire Gospel of Luke read aloud? Movie night? Game night? Making a gingerbread house? A day of silence? An internet scavenger hunt?
To think further (more than the 30 minutes I promised) about this important topic, you can find lots of great ideas at adventconspiracy.org.
World governments are an absolute mess. But a day is coming when the government will rest upon Messiah’s shoulders (see Isaiah 9:6). As we anticipate that day, let us keep him on the throne of our hearts. Jesus promised, “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning. Then you will be like servants waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks, they can open the door for him at once. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds on watch when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve and will have them recline at the table, and he himself will come and wait on them. Even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night and finds them alert, those servants will be blessed!” (Luke 12:35–38).
Image: What Wondrous Love “Festival of Lights” by John August Swanson. Used with permission.