Advent is one of the shortest seasons in the church year, a time of hope, preparation, and waiting. Today most of us experience Advent as a busy season. We rush around getting ready for Christmas. But in the ancient church Advent was a time for slowing down. This season, could you take a break from the bustle, the consumerism, the pre-Christmas insanity? Could this season be one of prayer, breathing, and slowing down?
I would argue we could use a good Advent. The season helps people to wait. In the calendar of Bible readings we encounter stories and poems from a people in exile. The words of the prophets, even the words of Jesus’ mother Mary (in the Magnificat), long for a country and a world where justice reigns and powerful rulers are put down from their thrones. These stories help us to know that God is there with us in our longing for a different reality. We could use reassurance, the camaraderie of hope and longing with the saints.
What follows are a few potential practical ways to engage this short season of waiting and hope.
Come to Church
If you can, come to church each Sunday. In most churches, Advent services are a little shorter. Arrive a little early, if you can, to spend some time in the quiet pew. Watch how the season develops. Music will be quieter, more reflective. Hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” are likely to be repeated across the four weeks, with different verses building toward the end. That hymn in particular is a modern setting of an ancient set of chants which built up to Christmas. Monks and nuns sang the “O Antiphons” and marked the days till Christ’s coming. Just taking the time to come to church is counter-cultural before Christmas. Don’t store up your worship time for December 24. Your Christmas will be richer if you celebrate a full Advent.
Try a prayer practice
Many people think of Lent as a time for a new prayer practice, but I would argue Advent can work even better. Lent is a long haul. Advent is less than a month. If you are looking for a suggestion, here are just two:
The Daily Office
The services of morning and evening prayer in the Anglican tradition are a simplification and combination of the early morning services and the later evening services of monastic communities. Such a simplification hopes to bring the rhythm of prayer out of specialized communities of monks and nuns, and into the daily lives of common people. The Daily Offices, can really be seen as a guide to praying our way through Scripture. For a longer explanation of the offices, check out this set of posts, a conversation about the offices with my friend Jason Evans, a recent convert to the Episcopal Church.
You can access the daily office through Mission St. Clare. They pre-load all the readings for you. They even have a great app for IOS and Android.
All the words of Morning or Evening prayer can seem like a lot in a season of slowing down. So, why not try silence as a gateway to prayer? The Trappist Monk, Thomas Keating, has re-introduced the ancient practice of centering prayer. Centering prayer is deceptively simple. You sit in silence for 20 minutes. When you find yourself engaging a thought process, you use a “sacred word” (a simple word, associated with God, that doesn’t lead to images and further thoughts). The sacred word helps you gently let go of your thoughts. Centering Prayer helps us to rest in God.
At Holy Communion we’ll be practicing Centering Prayer for three weeks in Advent on Wednesday evenings at 6pm. Each week we’ll introduce the silence a little differently, we Scripture readings, music, or guided meditation. But each week we’ll sit together in silence. We’ll follow the prayer with a simple soup supper. If you live near St. Louis, you’re welcome to join us. If you don’t, consider finding a group for practice through Contemplative Outreach.
Sitting in silence can seem difficult, at least at first. Listen to Amanda Olsted talk about her journey:
Shop with purpose
We can always try to buy less, to live more minimally, but this time of year consumption is unavoidable. There are folks we love who might be hurt if we don’t buy them a gift. So what if we shopped more intentionally? What if we paid attention not to the quantity of gifts, but the quality of life of the people producing the goods, food, and services we purchase this season?
Advent was traditionally a season of fasting. In our time it can be anything but a fast! Cookies, candy canes, eggnog, and peppermint lattes abound. In the midst of all the temptations, could you choose to engage differently?
A fast is different from a diet. Fasting is not about body image. Fasting is knowing that you could eat something, and choosing to abstain. Fasting helps us remember that this is a season with a direction. We look forward to the Feast of Christmas by making the simple decision to eat less before the feast.
Maybe you choose just to have one cookie a day, instead of indulging every time someone shows up with a plate. Maybe your fast could be simply catching yourself counting calories and saying “I am abstaining from worrying about my weight this season.” However you practice fasting, it can help you to look forward to the feast to come.
Let Go of Worry
In contemplative prayer we try and let go of our busy thoughts. We try to let go of the noise that crowds our world. What we do in our prayer practice can also affect how we live our life. How can we let go of worry? How can we turn down the news, the rush, the busy? Are there ways you can practice intentional disengagement? Could you make space for quiet, for waiting, for hope?
Advent is an invitation
We could all use a little creative spiritual disengagement. By unplugging from the rapid cycle of news, work, and consumption, Advent invites us to encounter this time differently. Advent is a season to acknowledge the “world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” This season encourages us to rest in the hope that another world is on the way. If we are ready, we might help midwife God’s new creation in the smallest and subtlest ways. To be ready we need to slow down. We need to practice silence, patience, and hope.