[Episcopal News Service] Just one way self-described “Adventophile” Mark Roberts stays focused on the reason for the season is with an Advent tree.
At a weekly devotional gathering with staff “I encouraged folks to reflect prayerfully on one aspect of our hope in this particular Advent,” Roberts said during a Dec. 11 interview with ENS. “I encouraged each one to take one of my purple ornaments and as they thought about that hope to offer it to God and put it on the tree as a sign of their prayer.
“I pray each day and offer those hopes to God. It’s a strange hybrid of things but for me and those in our organization it has become a meaningful way to remember hopes we have and offer them to God.”
Similarly, Linda Roberts, his spouse, has come up with her own creative defiance of the culture’s rush to Christmas: she doodles.
On the tenth day of Advent, for example, a doodle depicts the likeness of a bridge, surrounded by Scripture quotations, questionings and wonderings as well as the assurance, in bold type, “Don’t worry, God has heard your prayer.”
Advent-lovers of all types are personalizing hybrid approaches to the expectant season. Both light-hearted and serious, all agree that viscerally experiencing the longing, vulnerability, necessity of hope and the stark desire for God, prepares the way for Christmas transformation.
At a recent retreat in the Diocese of Los Angeles retreat leaders Barbara Braver and former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold characterized Advent waiting as pieces of a puzzle that, hopefully, comes together by Christmas.
“People just struggle so much to be whole in so many ways, to try to do the right thing. We make promises to ourselves that we’ll do this, that, or the other thing and fail. So often, we don’t let God’s loving mercy in,” Braver said during a Dec. 11 telephone interview from her Gloucester, Massachusetts, home.
Advent retreats, quiet days and intentional rituals are helpful reminders that “you only need God now, not in the future, not in the past, but living in the now is difficult for us.
“Especially because at this time we are looking forward, many of us, to the somewhat exhausting realities of Christmas morning,” Braver added. “The perfect presents, do we have the money to acquire them, and the dinner and what we’re going to dress up in and maybe we’re too thin or too fat and we’re trying to get that tree to stand up straight and the needles are maybe beginning to fall off and it’s still too early.
“Or maybe we’re looking back at other Christmases, to who was there and who isn’t there now and maybe mistakes we made in past times. There’s a lot attached in our psyches about Christmas; so much has to do with what is not yet so it helps to take some time and be intentional, to be aware of God’s presence, that the kingdom of God is now.”
Meeting God in prayer or poetry or music or bread and wine or Scripture and other rituals are all ways to help call us back to the reality of the mystery of God’s presence always with us, Griswold said during a recent telephone interview from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“Waiting in Advent is about going to that deeper place, asking what do I most deeply desire? I think of Advent as what do I most deeply want because that probably is what God wants to give me,” he said.
“And not just a new car or shirt or the perfect body or whatever it is that’s proffered to us every day as part of our culture,” he added. “But what is the deeper desire? Joy? Happiness? Do I desire a sense of relatedness to the mystery of my own life and sense that God and Jesus are part of that?”
Just as Advent Scripture lessons describe the yearnings of a subjected, defeated people for a new identity and a renewed public life based on justice and compassion, so contemporary longings are “for those deep healings of the human spirit and the social realities that support and define us,” Griswold said.
The puzzle comes together while “waiting in silence, encountering our own poverty and allowing the spirit with groans too deep to pray within us and bring some things to our consciousness that we in our busy-ness would not register or see,” he added.
The Rev. Chris Yaw, rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Southfield, Michigan, calls it “decluttering.”
He creates that necessary space by incorporating meditative Taizé music instead of traditional processional and recessional Sunday morning hymns. Ushers simultaneously dim the lights to heighten the effect, he said.
“In Advent we’ve tried to really, as a congregation, put together a way of being together that’s very different from the world … to bring the message home that the atmosphere is one of quiet expectation and meditation,” Yaw said during a Dec. 11 interview from Southfield.
He also offers a seasonal alternative in the form of celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas. This Sunday, Dec. 16, St. Nick will arrive as part of the congregation’s Advent lessons and carols service.
“Instead of going to the malls or the club or wherever you’d encounter Santa Claus, St. Nicholas will come out this Sunday, and the children’s choir will be part of lessons and carols,” he said.
Afterwards, there will dinner and photos with St. Nick rather than Santa, as a way of making “the church an alternative quiet place of Advent waiting and expectation that does resonate with some of the things in the culture.”
In Denver, Colorado, at the House for All Saints and Sinners (HFASS) vicar Alex Raabe and mission developer Nadia Bolz-Weber have created an alternative space with an outdoor “Advent waiting room.”
They strung blue Christmas lights in the courtyard of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, where HFASS, an emergent Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, meets at 5 p.m. on Sundays.
“We decided Advent is about waiting so when everyone is gathering, instead of sitting in chairs or going to the coffee bars, we thought, why don’t we wait outside as a visceral way of remembering we’re waiting, not just for the coming of Christ, we’re waiting for so many other things, community, togetherness, warmth. This waiting room serves that purpose,” Raabe said during a Dec. 12 interview from Denver.
“It’s a really beautiful way to connect with each other in a way that doesn’t happen when you’re indoors warm and comfortable and can hang out with your friends … in what can sometimes be miserably cold weather. But that makes the heat in the building that much more exciting and that much better, and Advent-y.”
Propane heaters, hot chocolate and cider help ward off the cold, he added. Additionally, after the sermon, a photo slide show features the congregation’s response to Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love.
“People have been combing through their photos and there’ve been lots of images from people who are pregnant” and of a child in the congregation who wasn’t expected to live but is now 2 years old, Raabe said.
“It helps us to get what we’ve been hearing the whole time, but in a different way,” he added. “It’s another way for people to connect and hear the word of God in a way that’s different and fresh.”
–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.