I personally wish I had done an Advent sermon series every week this year, but we will save that for next year. This sermon is an interlude from the “Attributes of God” series that we have been plugging through. Often the early church missionaries, preachers, and pastors from churches all around Europe preached at length on the topic of Advent and Lent. They spoke about the importance of increased prayers, devotions, fasting, and true penance. In this day and age we take a very laid back attitude to these types of holy times thinking that they are from an antiquated time. That it is neither necessary nor acceptable. But as Paul says if a person is worshipping Christ we should not try to curtail their efforts or their forms of worship and devotion. Everyone I have spoken to speaks of how keeping a holy Advent and Lent gives them substance and a closer, more sacred experience leading up to Christmas. Jews and Muslims for centuries have been going through their own holy high holidays and have gained deeper, more meaningful experiences in their faith; why do we give up that same right? The point of this sermon today for our online parishioners and those who will be hearing it in an actual church is to give an overview of the Advent season, the meaning behind it, the journey through it, and the devotions it brings to the Nativity.
Most Christians know how December 25th was chosen as the universal day for Christmas, but not as many people know the story of Advent. An anglicanized version of the Latin “adventus” (coming) formal observances, fasting, and devotion began in the fourth century. The Eastern Orthodox churches have an Advent like time that begins in the middle of November and goes into January; it is focussed on fasting, prayer, repentance, and abstinence. As I said in the western church Advent began to be a formalised holy time around the 4th century. It is hard to assess where this formal time first emerged as a recognised portion in the church liturgal calendar but the earliest record we have of a formal observance is in France. It was originally meant as a preparation time for the Feast of the Epiphany where converts would be baptised. It began as only a few weeks but to mirror Lent in a parallelism was made 40 days. In 380 A.D., the local Council of Saragossa, Spain, established a three-week fast before Epiphany. It was inspired by the Lenten regulations, the local Council of Macon, France, in 581 designated that from Nov. 11 (the Feast of St. Martin of Tours) until Christmas fasting would be required on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Eventually, similar practices spread to England. In Rome, the Advent preparation did not appear until the sixth century, and was viewed as a preparation for Christmas.
The Church gradually formalized the celebration of Advent. Traditionalists attributed Pope Gelasius I (d. 496), to be the man that was the first to provide Advent liturgies for five Sundays. Later, Pope Gregory I (d. 604) went further composing prayers, antiphons, readings, and responses. Pope Gregory VII later reduced the number of Sundays in Advent to four. Finally, about the ninth century, the Church designated the first Sunday of Advent as the beginning of the Church year.
But what are the Advent customs? Some of the more common customs I will touch upon (because the actual focus of this sermon is keeping a holy Advent). The first is being the Advent wreathe. This 4 candle wreath ornament came about in the 1500’s from German Lutherans (legend states that Martin Luther himself may have been the original creator of it). Each candle is meant for each week and each candle has a specific meaning. The wreathe is a circle, which has no beginning or end: So we call to mind how our lives, here and now, participate in the eternity of God’s plan of salvation and how we hope to share eternal life. The wreathe is made of fresh plant material, because Christ came to give us new life through His passion, death, and resurrection. Three candles are purple, symbolizing penance, preparation, and sacrifice; the pink candle symbolizes the same but highlights the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudette Sunday, when we rejoice because our preparation is now half-way finished.
The light represents Christ, who entered this world to bring light to a dark room. The lighting of candles is meant to be a journey as so many journeyed to worship the Babe wrapped in swaddling and lying in a manger. Let’s look at the devotion that each week holds, who are the players in it, what are the circumstances, and what is the reflection for that week. Some of the things that bother me with many advent devotions are that people often use random, glib, and shallow reflections for their advent devotions that have nothing to do with the preparation of Christ’s Nativity. One devotion recently compared the coming of Christ to a Justin Bieber concert! While all of the Bible is important Advent is a time of reflection, study, and devotion focussing on one specific event, Christ’s birth and while it is all leading up to Christ’s resurrection other things can get in the way, worldly noises that can drown out the glad tidings of great joy.
Week 1: In this first week traditionally Advent observers will begin either on the last day of November or the first of December, or roughly when the beginning of the 40 days counting back from Christmas begins. They light that first candle on a Sunday night, some let it burn all week and others light it every night after the evening meal. This parallels the Chanukah candles. We reflect on how that single light throws us back to 1000 years before Christ came. To the time of the prophet Isaiah, that single light offering hope in a world of craze and darkness. It symbolises the longing and hope the people of Israel (as well as us for we are Abraham’s decedents) have for the coming of the Messiah and how long we have been waiting for Him. In the Advent devotions we begin with the texts of Isaiah. This was a book that was found 100% in tact at the Dead Sea and it is often called the book of prophecy since it deals largely more than any other Old Testament gospel with direct signs, histories, references, and prophecies of the coming Messiah. Even though it often speaks in metaphor and imagery Jewish and later Christian scholars could clearly see that it was referencing times that were being recorded through the eyes of the Prophet. In the book of Jeremiah the Lord proclaims that there is a time where someone will arise from the House of David, He shall save Judah and Jerusalem and make them secure and safe. In Isaiah we are shown how Israel has angered God consistently and has fallen away so many times that a plan will be revealed to save them from their bondage (granted they thought literal bondage, whether it was the Babylonians or the Romans) but it was their bondage that prevented them from living in a holy state before a just God. The first week emphasises to us the importance of being earnest in the same way we have made the mistake of turning away from God we are told that enough is enough just as the Israelites had been told. There is something coming that you will either accept and be saved, or reject and be lost. It is the last chance, prepare, be fearful but have hope. For He shall judge and those who are enslaved will be set free, the poor will be lifted up, and the persecuted will be vindicated. But also the haughty and proud will be thrown down; the wicked and vile will be cast out. Prepare; be vigilant and watch (Peter).
Week 2: In this second week as we light the second and then the first candle we are called to observe the closing of our exile outside God’s grace. We are given more hope, the Old Testament focuses on how the Messiah will save God’s people and how God will judge those who do not accept this generous gift. However Isaiah and the other prophets make the coming of the Messiah so obvious and portray it as the greatest miracle of all time with such truth we cannot be afraid but excited. This week is a time of purification, sanctification, and cleansing. We are called to prepare our hearts, minds, souls, and make our paths straight. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Like Jews of the Old Testament who had to perform ritual preparation to enter the Temple we are to do the same for the coming King. We are so close to being freed. I recently read a journal account from a minister who was a former slave. This man was once an African prince who was transported to the Indies then England. He was a slave for many years, but through the grace of God he became educated, freed, and eventually a minister and activist. This man’s name was Gustavus Vassa or better known later as Olaudah Equiano. He worked with William Pitt, William Wilberforce, and others to bring about the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. In his still popular auto-biography he talks about the anticipation of his freedom when he knew he would be released from slavery. In his book he describes it almost like salivating over a great meal. You can almost taste it. And that is what we are called to focus on in the Advent season. In this materialistic culture we are excited for gifts, parties, and holidays yet we are to transport ourselves to ancient Palestine and relive the emotions of those people in awaiting Christ. It is when we can achieve that empathy that we become more intimate in our relationship with Christ. The Bible in the second week frequently references imagery of parched lands being rejuvenated with Living Water. This Utopia is coming, we have been told in this first week of what has gone wrong and been given a small hope, now it is more tangible like a mist appearing in front of us we can feel it.
Week 3: We are currently in week 3 of Advent. In my personal journals I often express my thoughts, vent my frustrations, record my travels, and reflect on my devotions. This Advent season I reflect on my Advent readings. In week 3 the Advent readings (which are sent out by church denominations-they are pretty much the same ones since the Bible is quite linear) focuses on the joy of the first coming. It is called Gaudete week. When a candle is lit in the third week it is often the rose candle. Yet certain denominations may do blue, or gold-it does not really matter. Gaudete literally means in Latin “rejoice.” This is the second part of Advent and we see the movement from the prophecies of old to the New Testament and the setting of the scene in Roman occupied Israel. Isaiah’s prophecies were laced with the Babylonian rule; the New Testament with Caesar’s but both dictatorships had something in common, the sin of Israel. See the children of God were not called to rejoice because a military leader was coming to overthrow a tyrannical king. Empires will always rise and fall so that was only a matter of time but the human disease of sin is constant and degenerative and the consequences were torture in the kingdom of darkness. That is why we should rejoice, we approach a time of remembrance when we were ripped from the shadows. Now it is not 100% rosy for those involved with Christ’s birth. We focus on the key players; first and for most- the Virgin Mary. Her first reaction to being told she would bear the Son of God was not a positive one, she was afraid and distressed by what she heard. We can imagine why, people would think she was immoral; they would think she was a liar, unfaithful to her betrothed, a blasphemer, truly she may even die. Joseph must have felt like he had been cheated on or that Mary had gone mad, or that he had gotten himself into something that he was unaware of. Yet when the angel came to Joseph in a dream how did Joseph feel after? Was he ashamed that he did not believe Mary? Was he embarrassed that he did not trust or consult the Lord or a rabbi? And yet the relief and acceptance Mary must have felt once she was with Elisabeth and Zechariah! She must have been in a microcosm of safety where she could reflect and pray in peace. We hold onto that feeling this week and try to keep it in the times that the darkness seems overwhelming.
Week 4: We light candle number 4. This is traditionally a shorter advent week as we are within a breath of the Nativity. In this fourth week I think of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem, a holy family, walking through sand storms, camping under palm trees, and going through rugged terrain. They were not the most popular people in their community because they followed God’s plan instead of cultural appropriate customs. All they had were each other, but still it was a lonely time. Christmas often is a lonely time for many; sadly it is one of the worse times in the year for depression and suicides. We can take a lesson from this, in this fourth week of advent let us take a lesson from the early Christian converts and seek out those who are alone. One of the most appealing facets of our faith is the sense of fellowship people feel-this should be emphasised and reinforced during Christmas tide. When I was a young teenager there was an older woman I knew. She was from what we would call “the other side of the tracks.” She was a larger woman who had a rough life. We will call her “Joan”. Joan was extremely poor and the community program I knew her through was her only chance to get a meal and a welcoming atmosphere. She had several children varying from different ages and fathers. She had a boyfriend who was abusing her. Joan had mental health issues, was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and had no job. 4 days before Christmas Joan disappeared. We do know her boyfriend had left her and the doctors had changed her medication and had done it improperly. Though I was a young teen I remember that very few people treated Joan well even at the community outreach program. I hope and pray Joan is ok and has gotten her life together but I am reminded of the ways we could have reached out to her before she left. Did the people of Nazareth treat Mary and Joseph like this? In the time they needed people the most they may have been abandoned. The Holy Bible commands us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, be kind for we never know who are angels hidden or even Christ Himself! For all of us, the story behind these days can draw us in, and invite us to bring our lives to the mystery of how Jesus came into this world and why. Our best preparation for the Holy Night ahead and the Joyful Morning to follow is for us to reflect upon how He came. He came in a time that was laced with strife, prejudice, and poverty. He came as the most helpless member of society; not the military leader as many thought. He was rejected before he was born. He was laid in a filthy feed trough in a stale, rank cave. He was declared an enemy of the state. He grew up with the whispers of His conception. He did not shun us even though we never gave him a chance. He embraced us, we crucified Him. And He desires to embrace us now. On Christmas Eve I love listening to “Silent Night Holy Night” and imagine a peaceful, quiet, and sombre night in Bethlehem, the world was hushed and I feel at peace. Yet Christ is comforting us and giving us that peace-pass it onto others and be Christ to them. If we accept the gift of Christ Jesus’ love we will find ourselves entering the sacred night and morning of Christmas “joyful and triumphant” as never before and we will truly understand the meaning of Christmas.
Now I do have some suggestions for keeping a Christ-focussed Christmas, because after all that is the whole point of Advent. First, keep the devotion and intimacy you found in Advent by keeping the “reason for the season” in mind and treating it not just as a family get together and presents but also a holy time. Mix your devotions with the gift of grace which was more precious than gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Look to what Christ was ultimately born for and be humbled by it, you will feel all the more grateful even for the smallest joys. The key to finding intimacy with God in the midst of this time of Christ’s mass (as it was once called) is to be aware of what it all means. With focus and a conscious attention to the Infant we go through our day in constant prayer and praise as the Bible calls us to do. I love church services on Christmas Eve and at midnight or dawn services. There is something in the air that I must say is what the Spirit tastes like because I have no word for it in any other language. Secondly, we are to keep the day for all year. In Charles Dickens a “Christmas Carol” Ebenezer Scrooge says that he will keep Christmas in his heart every day of the year and that is what we should remember to do, it is not a day, but a season that is to be an eternal one. I had a friend in university who loved listening to Christmas carols year round because he said they were the best kind of praise and worship songs and we missed out when we denied ourselves the other 364 days a year. Thirdly, use Christmas to spread the Gospel. This is our primary mission as Christians. Christmas is a tool we can use to do this. Replace the gifts Santa gives with the sacrifice of Christ. Take away the Christmas tree and supplement the star of Bethlehem. Offer with the stocking a Bible with the Christmas story highlighted! I have experienced such a deeper level of God’s love this season I am excited for my devotions during Christmas, Lent, and Easter but I do not need these holy times to have this level of devotion year round and that is how you keep a holy Advent, don’t keep it limited to Advent. Merry Christmas!