Yesterday was the first day of Advent and the beginning of a new church year. Advent marks the four Sundays preceding Christmas and is a time of expectation, preparation, hope, and longing. In the past it also had a penitent aspect, observed with fasting, which some traditions still observe today. These five words just about sum up (at least for me) how we should approach the coming of the Lord Jesus, whether in remembrance of His birth or in expectation of when He comes again.
If you hadn't already guessed, I am a big fan of following the liturgical calendar. (My blog is called Ordinary Time, after all, named after the non-special seasons of the church year. The 'everyday' Sundays.) I love how the church calendar gives us seasons of celebration and repentance, seasons of special days and regular days. It is cyclical just as the seasons are and gives a balance to our lives. If we follow the calendar we walk through the life of Jesus and the church on a yearly basis... Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, and so on and so on.
I also think that by using the church calendar as a lens through which to order our lives we can avoid some of the pitfalls our modern society would push us into. It is more difficult to get caught up in the extreme commercial Christmas mania which overtakes many at this time of year if we continue to focus on preparing for the coming of Jesus. If one looks at the scheduled liturgical readings for Advent, one finds the readings from the Gospels to be about the warnings of when the Son of Man returns (Christ's second Advent) and about Jesus' death. Focusing on being truly prepared for the second Advent of Jesus does help to squelch meaningless commercialism.
This is not to say as a result we should all be dour do-gooders; Scrooges with a more open hand, but Scrooges none the less. The third candle lit in Advent is the candle of Joy. These are ultimately joyful things we are celebrating... the coming of God as man to provide a way for us to be reconciled to Him despite our sinfulness. It is difficult to wrap one's head around how much God loves us in order for this all to work, but it is the truth whether we understand it or not, and it is joyful news indeed. If we even came close to understanding it all, we would be so filled with joy that it would spill out of us and we could do nothing to stop it.
The question then becomes how does one translate all of this for our families. For us, we do several things. We use an advent wreath with four candles and a Christ candle in the center. Every Sunday at dinner, we light the candle(s) on the wreath, read some Scripture passages, pray, and then gather around the piano to sing carols together. Singing carols all together is one of my favorite family Christmas activities. It is also one of our children's favorite traditions as well. The last thing we do before everyone goes to bed on Christmas Eve is to sing carols together. Then, on Christmas morning, before we do anything else, we light our Advent wreath and the Christ candle to remember why we celebrate the day.
This year, in addition to our Sunday Advent wreath, we have a daily devotional book we will be reading from at dinner and special candle we will light. In other years we have used a Jesse Tree. (This is a small Christmas tree with ornaments for each day of Advent. The ornaments each match the Scripture reading for each day. You would read the passage and put the ornament on.) We try to make a conscience effort to put the emphasis of the season on Jesus and others and not on getting stuff. We don't make Christmas lists because I was never comfortable with the mercenary aspect of it. I would rather my children be grateful for what ever they happen to receive and not have expectations which may or may not be met. We focus instead on what we are going to be doing for each other. It is an important lesson to learn that giving gifts can give as much or more pleasure than receiving them.
Following a liturgical calendar does not mean that one is forced into rigidness. It is a tool and I use it as such. For instance, in full disclosure, we did not light our first Advent candle last night... we will do so this evening. After a very full weekend of house guests and activity followed by an afternoon at church where we attended the family Advent workshop, we were all out of steam. It seemed better to wait a day until everyone was better rested (myself included) and when we had entered back into a more normal schedule. Observing family traditions just for the sake of tradition is pointless if everyone is too tired and cranky to get anything out of it.
Two other items which some of you may be interested in. The first, on Thanksgiving morning, the Chicago Tribune had a front page article about adoption and large families in IL. See, I'm not making this stuff up! The second, I will be interviewed about family traditions at Christmas time on Moody Radio tomorrow (11/29) at 10:30am central time. This is actually my second radio interview, but I didn't tell anyone about the first one because I was so nervous. I survived, so feel a little more comfortable sharing about it this time. You can listen through Moody's website. Just click on the 'listen live' link.