Five Advent Rituals for Individuals and Families
The season of Advent begins this Sunday, and it has now become a tradition for me to share a list of Advent practices that just might make the next four weeks meaningful for you and your family. In years past I've entitled this article, "How to Make Advent Special," but it donned on me after posting it last year that Advent is special whether we realize it or not. It is a gift, and we either receive it or we don't. It is our loss if we jump too quickly into the Christmas season without reckoning with the great themes of Advent.
Advent is my favorite season in the Church calendar for many reasons, but mostly because it challenges everything Black Friday and our oversaturated consumer culture stands for. It has so much more to offer than simply preparing us for Christmas. As Christians in America, we need to hear the challenging (and even apocalyptic) Scripture readings that are presented to us during this holy season. These readings root us in the reality that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will [undoubtedly] come again.” You can find the appointed readings for the season here. Advent calls us to prepare for our Lord's return, but rather than arriving lowly in a manger he will come next time in power and great glory.
But before we go any further we should define the word "Advent." It simply means "coming" from the Latin word "adventus." If you don't go to a church that celebrates this season, you are missing out. It is the four weeks leading up to Christmas, but Christians as early as the 4th and 5th centuries used it as a time of preparation before being baptized at the Feast of the Epiphany (twelve days after Christmas). Over the centuries Advent has been a season that reminds Christians of the value of waiting.
So, let's be intentional as we wait for Christmas. Here are just five recommendations on ways that you as an individual, or as a family, can thoughtfully journey through this holy season.
First, finding a devotional is always a good way to go. If you aren’t much of a daily devotional person, finding one that only goes for the four weeks of Advent may be manageable. The Advent Project is a daily email devotional done by Biola University. I was so impressed by how they incorporated art and music into their short theological writings. They do amazing work that engages the reader in so many ways. Make sure to check it out.
Some other options are Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas which includes short writings from many of the great Christian writers over the centuries. The prolific writer Walter Brueggemann also has one called, Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent. N.T. Wright has a good one called Advent for Everyone. He is the retired bishop of Durham, and a gifted writer. The Franciscan author Richard Rohr has one called Preparing for Christmas.
If you are looking for a more substantial work on Advent I highly recommend Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. I recently did an interview podcast with her on this subject for St. Martin's "The Wayside Podcast." The two-part interview will be available on December 1st and 8th.
As for her book, it is a collection of sermons that she preached over the years during this holy season. Reading sermons may not interest you, but I will say Fleming's work has shaped my love for Advent more than anyone else. She helped me appreciate the apocalyptic themes found throughout this season. You can read her sermons as a daily devotional. If you'd rather listen to a lecture she's given on the subject click here.
Second, consider praying the Collect that can be found in the Book of Common Prayer. What is a Collect? Great question. These short prayers sum up the theme for each week in Advent, and they are some of the most beautiful prayers in our Prayer Book. Here they are below if you would like to add them to your daily prayers through the season.
First Sunday 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 for ever. Amen.”
Second Sunday of Advent, "Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."
Third Sunday of Advent, "Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen."
Fourth Sunday of Advent, "Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."
Third, having an Advent wreath at home can be a powerful symbol for both young and old. Lighting a candle for each week is a great way to mark our journey through the season, and adding another aspect like reading a piece of Scripture, or even praying the Collect from that given Sunday can make the whole experience feel more sacred.
Another option, if you are musically inclined, is to sing a verse or two of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" as you light the candles. Many churches will sing this every Sunday, adding a verse each week. Doing all of this in the dark encompasses the great themes of light and darkness in Advent. We are reminded that Jesus came to give light to the world.
Fourth, having a crèche (Nativity scene) in your home can be another great visual, but it can lose some of its power if all the usual characters are present during Advent. I know someone who keeps baby Jesus in a drawer in their kitchen until Christmas Eve. Think about adding different characters to the scene throughout Advent, but save the wise men for Epiphany (January 6). Also, think about doing a short blessing over the Christmas tree or crèche. A great one for the tree can be found here. Click here for the crèche.
Fifth, if you have children you may want to begin shifting your focus to St. Nicholas rather than Santa Claus. He was the Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey in the fourth century, and there are many myths about him. He still is a symbol of generosity, gift-giving, and a father figure. St. Nicholas reminds us of our Heavenly Father who gives us all good gifts. St. Nic's feast day on the Church calendar is December 6th. There are some creative ways your family could celebrate that day as a foretaste of Christmas. Making cookies in the shape of St. Nic with his bishop's mitre on is one way. Also, doing a kind act to each family member like setting the table or helping with dinner could be a way that your kids to live in the spirit of St. Nic.
These are just a few options that you could do as an individual or with your family. The key is to be intentional through this holy season. If you want more ideas for children and families then I highly recommend, To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration by Gertrud Nelson. If you're tired of the same old commercialism this December, then think about some thoughtful ways you can journey through Advent. This is too important of a season to go unnoticed.
May God bless you as you journey through the next four weeks, and let me know how it goes!