Five Advent Rituals for Individuals and Families
Maybe before talking about Advent traditions and rituals we should probably define the word "Advent." The word simply means "coming" from the Latin word "adventus." If you don't go to a church that celebrates this season, well, you're missing out. It is the four weeks before Christmas (starting this Sunday), but Christians as early as the 4th and 5th century used it as a time of preparation before being baptized at the Feast of the Epiphany (twelve days after Christmas). Advent over the centuries has been a wonderful season that reminds Christians the value of waiting...which is usually hard for us to do.
While the rest of the world usually bypasses Advent, and goes straight to Christmas (at least the secular version of it), we are invited to experience the sacred act of hopeful anticipation. The Sunday readings during Advent in the Episcopal Church focus not only on Jesus’ first coming, which we celebrate at Christmas, but also his second coming. We’re reminded that we are in a waiting period until he comes again. We specifically say this during our communion service, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” And so, in Advent we wait.
But 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. A great one is 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 great 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 don’t want to spend any money just Google search, and see if you can find one that works for you.
Second, consider praying the Collect that can be found in the Book of Common Prayer. What is the 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 dimension like reading a piece of Scripture or even praying the Collect from that given Sunday while lighting the candles can make the whole experience feel more sacred. One of the great themes of Advent is light and darkness, and how Jesus came to give light to the world. Think about turning out the lights as you light the candles to drive home this point.
Fourth, having a crèche (Nativity scene) in your home can be another great visual, but it loses it power if all the characters are there during Advent. I know someone who keeps the 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 on 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 everything. His feast day in the church 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 way that your kids live into 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. Advent is truly too special 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!
Note: This is based on my article in The Sentinel (St. James the Less, Dec. 2019)
Pic from here.