Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns and appears the second week of each month.
by Tom Beutel
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23, NRSV)
Christmas trees, spiced cookies, gingerbread houses and other familiar Christmas traditions have their roots in Germany. And, according to a short article published in the Mennonite World Review of October 14, 2014, we learn that the Germans are staunchly defending the traditional Christmas season, in particular, Advent.
Tired of what they see as the creeping encroachment of American-style commercialism into
old Europe, they want the government to step in and say no to selling Christmas items before
it is time…The country also clearly defines its Christmas season as starting with Advent, a
celebration that Germans take seriously.
Advent is a special time in the church year. The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the new year on the church calendar and begins a roughly four week time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas.
Advent, which means coming or arrival, is a time to reflect on the first coming of Jesus 2000 years ago as a human, “God with us.” It is also a time to meditate on the expected second coming of Jesus when the kingdom of God will be consummated.
Traditionally, Advent has been a time of self-examination, reflection, and penitence. It is not, by and large, a festive time, although certain practices – such as visiting family and friends, baking Christmas cookies and cakes, and putting up Christmas decorations – have their festive side. Advent is a time to slow down, and consider what it means to have “God with us;” what it means that God himself took on human form to live with us and teach us how to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul and our neighbor as ourselves.
This emphasis of Advent, of course, flies in the face of the “spirit” of the season as it is practiced culturally with frenzied shopping sprees; an overabundance of parties and programs; and the never-ending list of things-to-do! We must, therefore, make a conscious choice to slow down and to celebrate Advent as it is intended. We do this, not for the sake of the holiday, but for our own sake, for our own well-being, and the well-being of others. We do this to honor God and his Son Jesus who, after all, is what Christmas is all about.
One way that we can observe the Advent season is by following an Advent devotional plan. This can be a daily practice or a weekly practice, focusing on the four Sundays of Advent and on Christmas Eve. In this case, using a Advent wreath as the focal point of the devotional times may be both helpful and enriching.
The Advent wreath consists of a small circle of greens and four candles, one for each Sunday in Advent. Usually, there is a fifth candle, typically in the middle of the wreath, called the Christ candle which is lit on Christmas Eve.
Each Sunday in Advent a candle is lit: one on the first Sunday, two on the second Sunday, on so on, until, on the last Sunday all four candles are lit. Each candle has a specific meaning, a theme for that Sunday. The meaning of each candle can vary somewhat depending on the specific denominational tradition, but a typical set of meanings is Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace for the four Sundays.
The color of the four candles also varies somewhat with three purple and one pink being used by the Roman Catholic church and four red candles by most Protestant churches, although the distinction is not hard and fast.
Advent wreaths are used in churches and in homes. In a family setting it is typical for the family to do a short devotional with a scripture reading and a prayer and possibly some music. This practice provides an opportunity not only for family members to slow down and reflect on the significance of Christmas, but it also provides an opportunity to teach children about the true meaning of the Christmas season.
If you decide to celebrate Advent as a special time, and I hope you will, you can find resources from a number of places. Often churches will provide devotional booklets for Advent. Here are some online resources which you might find helpful:
- Christian Resource Institute – an excellent article on the history and practice of Advent, http://www.cresourcei.org/cyadvent.html
- Wikipedia: Advent Wreath – brief article on the Advent wreath, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent_wreath
- Luther Seminary: Advent Devotional – a daily Advent devotional guide, http://www.luthersem.edu/advent/
- Thriving Family: Children’s/Family Christian Advent Calendar, Parents Guide, and Children’s Activities: an excellent, attractive “package” for family Advent observations – http://www.thrivingfamily.com/advent
Using the resources given above or others that find or create celebrate this special time: reflect on what it means to have “God with us;” on our sinfulness and need or repentance; and on the joy of Christ’s first coming and his expected return.