More Advent, Less Hurry
by Ashley Young
Americans tend to synonymize Advent and Christmas. We start the Christmas music in September and begin decorating a few days before Halloween, maybe even earlier this year. Commercial Advent is part of the ever-expanding buying cycle of Christmas. This adds to the difficulty of envisioning realistically introducing our kids to the traditional, liturgical version of Advent. What’s more, the marketing arena is now saturated with Advent paraphernalia. Each year an innovative Advent study guarantees a simpler Christmas or my favorite author shares their take on family traditions surrounding Advent. Since nothing awakens the delusional optimist in me like the pages of a beautiful new book, I’m a target market. Being new to celebrating a liturgical Advent, it can all be overwhelming. For those not new it can still be too much, especially if you factor in social media.
Who does not imagine enchanting scenes of kids in matching pajamas, mugs of hot cocoa, and shining beeswax candles hand made by cherubic toddlers? But those Instagram squares lie because the reality of the experience is naked sugar crazed children crawling over the table, while you try not to shout Bible verses through the noise. We desperately need to adjust expectations. This approaching season is demanding. What we do to prepare in our homes should enhance and not detract from our peace. This year especially the idea of adding more burden is unconscionable. Liturgy can lighten the load and not add to it. You do not need a day by day program, new book, or to buy a single thing to prepare for a meaningful Advent. One of the wonderful things about learning the Anglican Way is finding a deep, meaningful tradition already established to muffle the noise.
As you walk the path of the Daily Office you realize the arrogance of all the reinventing of liturgy in current evangelical devotional works. Many of those “new” Advent studies are simply repackaging of the Book of Common Prayer. Recently an Advent study for preschoolers caught my eye because it included “wreath blessings.” Obviously, whoever developed that curriculum misapplied the point of the Advent wreath. Historically the Advent season was the opposite of our modern manifestation; there was alms-giving instead of acquiring and penitence instead of parties. Advent was once called little Lent but as a time of repentance it differed in an important way; Lent focuses us on our individual sin but Advent emphasizes all of creation’s need for a redeemer. Advent reminds us this beautiful and painful world is groaning in bondage of sin and the work of clearing out space for Him to enter makes it a time of reflection, stillness, and waiting.
Our modern commercial liturgies flip the ancient ones on their heads and what is more they add immense weight to us. John Mark Comer points us in the right direction when he says “hurry is violence on the soul.” Nowhere is that sentiment truer and more pernicious than the Christmas season. Applying this in terms of Advent is striking. No wonder by Christmas we are ready to take down the decorations and get back to normal. Commercial Advent exhausts instead of recharging us. And, as a mother, it grieves me how many times throughout this coming season I will be tempted to conceptually mush my kids.
In terms of walking through a liturgical Advent as families we need fewer expectations and less hurry. This provides space to thrive. We need to retune our instincts to the ancient rhythms. Liturgical tradition acknowledges our basic human incongruities; we are made to crave novelty and stability. The rhythm of our church year follows these instincts. C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters sums it up beautifully: “He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made them, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm.” We have these rhythms for a purpose and there is an important connection between rhythm and remembering.
As we reengage the ancient path of the Old Testament prophets to the Christ child, we follow the command intrinsically part of our Christian history to set aside times to remember. We prepare Him room by sweeping out our hearts and filling them with stories awakening our souls to the mystical reality of the Incarnation. Each week as you read the liturgy together, take note of the Old Testament themes and then grab your Jesus Storybook Bible and read those stories together as a family. There are even free Jesus Storybook printables available online. Resist the urge to explain or correlate. Simply share an experience in Scripture together knowing connections will come through the work of the Holy Spirit. In a unique way the liturgical approach to Advent and Christmas—really all the Church year—draws us to walking side by side with our children. It reminds me that within the Anglican Way we have an opportunity to provide what the Christian world craves; discipleship of our children that feels real.
Joining the call to remember is another to embrace the fundamentals of teaching our children the words of ancient songs and prayers. Slugs & Bugs Sing the Bible Family Christmas album has some adorable songs that teach liturgical Advent themes.
And, if you don’t mind kickin’ it old school, Advent carols are some of my favorite to teach my children. Last year we learned O Come, O Come Emmanuel throughout Advent and it was pure magic hearing sweet little voices casually singing words too deep for their minds to fully understand. Each morning we light some candles together and recite the prayers for the week, saying together “give us grace to cast off the work of darkness and put on the armor of light.” * In that simple act a brick is laid in the great cathedral of their souls. I visualize putting on our armor together by spilling out the prayers and songs into the darkness. It gives back to me while giving to them; these words are ageless and stand on their own. By focusing on saying the prayers, reading stories and having simple visual representations we can keep it real while grounding ourselves in the immemorial themes.
Some other practical and low stress ideas involve the practice of counting down. One way we count down the days is to make a simple advent chain out of construction paper and write a Bible verse on the underside of the chain. The Book of Common Prayer has a lectionary in back (p. 717) where you can easily find the verses. Another laid-back countdown is to have the younger kids put a piece of straw each day in the manger. We did a variation and pulled grass from our yard (I confess, sorry Honey) and it became the sweetest visual for me to see them lay flowers and “hay” for the baby Jesus. Each season builds on itself; find what sparks joy within the traditions for you and pursue it for your family.
Jesus is gently leading us away from hurry and offering a chance to absorb rest and peace. Lay a foundation by slowing down right now as we pass into the beginning of our church year on the 29th of November. If there was ever a time to embrace the shelter and stability offered by liturgy it is this year. I will enjoy the matching jammies with hot cocoa stains and other imperfect pictures (true story: I may or may not have agreed to a pet snake for Christmas while writing this) being grounded in the reality of the Incarnation. We are a people of story, and the center of the story is Jesus. When we allow the church year rhythms into our life, even in hard years and uncertain times, we hang on to remembering together. “Come thou long expected Jesus! Born to make thy people free. From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee.”
*Prayer for the first week of Advent:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which Your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when He shall come again in His glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through Him who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen