What is it with this time of the year? If your diary looks anything like mine it has been marked with year-end parties, lunches, or any host of functions that seem to be a prerequisite to this season. If you are still fortunate to have a child in school, then the craziness just ratchets up a notch. Whether they swing a bat or sing in the choir; if they got straight A’s or just showed up – there is an assembly, a prize giving, or a concert to attend.
Far be it from me to decry an opportunity to celebrate our little darlings’ achievements, but why does it all have to be in the same few weeks, sometimes even days? It’s no wonder we often refer to this time as the ‘silly season’. Yet some years, ‘silly’ doesn’t even come close to describing it – organised chaos would more apt. As the end of the year approached, my family’s nerves are shot and tempers are frayed. Someone singing ‘Jingle Bells’, or trying to spread a little Christmas cheer is likely to be assaulted in our house. Do not even mention the hordes that come out of the woodwork demanding Christmas bonuses. So is there an antidote to all of this? Is there somewhere that we can turn to for a bit of sanity in this season?
Amazingly, the antidote is found not far from where this all began. Somewhere in the annals of the history of the church a different calendar developed. Tired of the normal tempo of the year, some wise old sages decided to formulate their own calendar. You may or may not know it, but in the Christian tradition, New Year (and all its trappings) is not the beginning of the year. The Christian calendar and the seasons that comprise it begin with Advent, but the centre of the year is Easter. Around this epochal event pivots the Christian year.
This is not the place to explore the Christian calendar, its rich tapestry, or its resurgence in popularity. Suffice to say that around the two most important events, there is a season that precedes each one. The season before Easter is Lent and similarly the season that precedes Christmas is Advent. Lent and Advent mirror one another. They are intended as a time of preparation, even anticipation. So important are these two celebrations (Christmas and Easter), so filled with meaning and significance, that the Church Fathers understood that a time of preparation was required.
As someone who grew up within a high Anglican tradition, most of these rituals were lost on me. As a teenager I blew out of the church and when I finally returned it was with an iconoclastic fervour. In my early years of ministry I would have chosen being sent to the stake rather than returning to a formal liturgy. Again, a story for another day.
However, several years ago, more out of necessity than conviction, I was drawn to this season called Advent. Perhaps now more than ever we need a reminder and an opportunity to reflect on the real significance of Christmas. As my late friend and colleague Neil once shared: “Advent is about Christmas not sneaking up on us, not taking us unaware.” In this harried life and crazy world it is more practical than liturgical, it is more necessity than theology.
So what are some ways that we can embrace Advent?
Within the world of scripture it is the prophets that challenge our indifference, that rouse us from the fatigue of the end of the year. The preferred prophet of Advent is Isaiah. Isaiah, more than any other, anticipates the Messiah and calls us to prepare for His coming.
I encourage you to read Isaiah afresh in these weeks leading up to Christmas. His words will stir your soul, search your heart, and prepare you for the celebration of the King
A caution is needed here. It’s not what you read but how you read that is important.
Advent is an opportunity to reflect, to slow down and examine our lives. We are invited to leave the busyness and stress that poisons our souls and contemplate another Kingdom, another King. As we read, we don’t need to read Isaiah as much as we need Isaiah to read us. This takes time, it requires space. Perhaps even times of quiet, maybe a journal, or an unhurried conversation with a trusted friend.
In the next few weeks I hope to pursue this theme. In the meantime another suggestion is to explore the readings of the wider church during this season.You can follow along with the Sunday worship readings or even daily readings on any of a number of websites.
One that I have found helpful is Satucket.com.
John van de Laar offers some practical help with readings, prayers, and even a book on Advent on his website Sacredise.
So as you prepare for family and friends, as you brave the shops for those last minute gifts or stand in line for the gammon you forgot, remember that this is a time to prepare your soul not just your table.
Let me leave you with some favourite words from the one whom we are meant to be celebrating at this time:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Mt 11:28–30). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.