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Advent... a season of expectation

Advent is a special time of the year for Christians who are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas and his return. It is a season of prayer, fasting, repentance, and joy. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. This year, Advent runs from December 3 through December 24.

In the church, you will notice a change in the color of the vestments (clothing that the priest wears) and the hangings to blue. On the third Sunday in Advent, rose (pink) may be used instead of blue as a reminder to rejoice. Most notably, many churches and homes display an Advent Wreath decorated with four candles (3 blue or violet and 1 rose) around its edge and a center candle. Some attribute specific themes to each candle: hope, peace, joy, and love.

 

Consider making an Advent wreath for your own use at home as you journey through Advent with the church. It does not need to be fancy; you can use what you have. You can even use wood, like the example at the right.

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Week 4: Love

For many people, one of the best-known passages in the Bible is from 1 Corinthians 13, which is all about love. But Paul isn’t talking about romantic love here, he is talking about the selfless love of one for others, what the Greeks termed agape love. Each verse of 1 Corinthians 13 directs us to the story of Jesus and his love: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We will never learn how to love by working it up from our own hearts; the only way for us to become more loving of our spouses, our families, our neighbors, our communities, and our world is to allow more of the love of Jesus—the one and only true Love Divine, whose coming we celebrate this Christmas season—into our lives.

Love can be the love we feel for our families, or friends, or our significant others. It can be the love we feel for ourselves. Novelist Paulo Coelho said that loving others brings us closer to our spirituality: “When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” Understanding love better helps us understand God. “God and love are synonymous,” says minister Oswald Chambers. “Love is not an attribute of God, it is God; whatever God is, love is.”

As you light the candle for love, focus on the love God feels for you. Remember that relationships may come and go, but God’s love for you is unending. Think about all the ways that God loves you and how you see God’s love in your daily life.

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Week 3: Joy

Some may view joy and happiness as the same thing: contentment and pleasure. Happiness is a temporary emotion that depends on external factors, such as achieving a goal, receiving a reward, or experiencing something positive. Joy is a deeper and more lasting feeling that comes from within, and it is often related to making peace with oneself, being selfless, or feeling spiritually connected. Joy is something much more spiritual and intentional in nature.

David Steindl-Rast is an Austrian-American Catholic Benedictine monk and author, committed to interfaith dialogue. He has dealt extensively with the interaction between spirituality and science, and his experience with the world’s various religions convinced him that the human response of gratitude is a part of the religious worldview and is essential to all human life. He says in his TED Talk entitled “Want to be happy? Be grateful:

“It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy. If you think it’s happiness that makes you grateful, think again. It’s gratefulness that makes you happy” (1:48).

The writer of Isaiah this week talks about many expressions of joy: in the Lord’s anointing of Isaiah, and in allowing him to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind the brokenhearted, and to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners (Is 61:1). And these are only examples in verse one! The writer continues that all who mourn will be comforted and provided for (Is 61:2).

And how does the writer respond to God’s provisions? Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being shall exult in my God” (61:10).

In Luke’s Gospel, we read that Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant” (1:46-8). The spiritual truth of the Christmas season is that the child of God was born for us. When things seem darkest, joy can come to us in unexpected places, and in small (crying) packages.

As you light the candle for this Advent week, visualize the things that bring you joy -- whether activities, people, or places -- and intentionally make whatever brings you joy a part of your day. Because joy doesn’t just happen; it’s up to us to choose it daily.

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Week 2: Peace

The idea of peace is immensely popular. We love talking about it, writing about it, dreaming about it, and planning for it. But peace is an elusive thing for us -- in our culture in general and specifically in our own lives. Peace in this bustling holiday season is something we long for, but it must be an intentional step for us.

Sometimes we miss the message in the age-old wisdom. We can turn to Hafsot Abiola of Nigeria, born in 1974. She said:

“Peace comes from being able to contribute the best that we have, and all that we are, toward creating a world that supports everyone. But it is also securing the space for others to contribute the best that they have and all that they are.” 

Isaiah also says something of peace: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken”  (Isaiah 40:3-5). In Isaiah’s vision of peace, all people together see the glory of the Lord because all are supported and all can come together as they are, without a need to pretend that they are someone who they are not.

Peace is the generous contribution of all to the good of all. How have you helped others to be present in their fullest, most authentic self, even without having to change how you, yourself, come?

Consider adding a reminder of peace to the second candle of your Advent wreath.

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Week 1: Hope

Hope is hard to define. It’s more than wishful thinking. It doesn’t mean that we don’t consider the reality. Henri Nouwen discusses this difference:

“Optimism is the expectation that things – the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on – will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands” (Bread for the Journey).
 

Having hope is many times easier said than done. It can be challenging when we are overwhelmed, struggling with something chronic, or just plain tired. When we are struggling to find hope, it can be helpful to remember... to remember a time when God restored your hope.

In the Gospel of Mark, we read: Keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep” (Mark 13:35-36). God didn’t come into our world in broad daylight. God entered our lives in darkness in Bethlehem. Has there been a Dark Night in your life, a time that God spoke to you in a new way? A time when you felt God's love more fully and perfectly, even without knowing of what was to be?

Considering adding a reminder of hope to the first candle of your own Advent wreath.

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