But all that is secondary to the real meaning of Christmas, and to the things we ought to be thinking about during the Christmas season. It seems like every year we reexamine our traditions to see if they are still serving us well, and tweak them a little bit. This year is no different. I ran across a very thoughtful post, over at The Apple Cider Mill.
Advent literally means "coming," and it is a four-week season that precedes Christmas. It is meant to be a season of penitence, reflection, and fasting, but as we all know, this is hardly the tenor or focus of the four weeks that precede Christmas for most people. Usually, the season of Advent can be categorized for contemporary Americans by business, exorbitance, indulgence, and stress. Many Christians try to step back from the temptation to follow the crowd in this regard, but all too often what they end up with is a period of time that doesn't feel preparatory; it merely feels ordinary. We know that we don't want the weeks before Christmas to feel "ordinary," and so we feel torn between cutting back and giving into the secular siren call. In either case, how we usually feel by the time Christmastide rolls around is exhausted and dissatisfied.
Advent provides a wonderful balance. It is not ordinary time; it is a season set apart in anticipation of the great feast and celebration of Chistmas to come. The very penitent nature of the season prepares us to surrender completely to the celebration of Emmanuel, God with us. The more we surrender to Advent, the more our hearts will be ready to receive the gift of the Christ Child, just as Lent prepares our hearts for the gift of our Resurrected Lord.
Now we, not being Catholic, don't celebrate Lent. But I think that she's onto something here. There is merit to the idea of planning, and her analogy about preparing for a baby coming (see the next quote) is an interesting one. I don't know that I want to separate "Advent" into its own season, but I can understand why she does and I think that we can take from the ideas. Actually, when you explain Lent like this, there may be more to it than I was previously aware of. I'd never had a good Catholic explain what it's all about before, and it never made a lot of sense to me. There is reverence and beauty in the symmetry of Bethany's celebration of Advent and Lent.
She has several suggestions for how to go about celebrating Advent - that is, how to focus on Christ during the Christmas season. I like quite a few of them. The first thing that Bethany suggests is an attitude adjustment.
Remember that Advent is a season of PREPARATION for Christmas. Advent is not Christmas. This distinction may look different in different homes; it's the principle that counts. So start thinking about how your Advent can differ from you Christmastide.
For those who think Christmas just comes of its own accord and requires no preparation, I offer the analogy of a birth in the family. Of course, the baby is going to come at the end of gestation whether you prepare for it or not, but you do prepare. You go to lamaze classes, you set up a nursery, you pray, you reflect, you journal, you anticipate. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ. Moreover, we are looking forward with hope to His Second Coming. He's going to come, anyway, of course. But, it will be better for us if we're ready for the celebration!
Go read the rest of her post. It's got some cool ideas for creating a lovely Christmas season and filling your home with the spirit of Christ.
One of Bethany's friends tried to leave her a post-length comment, which blogger wouldn't accept because it was too long. The friend emailed it instead, and Bethany posted it. It has some more great ideas, including this that would be great for the season:
If you like classical music, there are so many wonderful pieces written for the celebration of Advent. Start with Bach's Cantata BWV 140. Read a translation of the text first (it's in German) and then listen to the cantata (really sit down and LISTEN without doing anything else - if you are out walking with your ipod, or riding in your car, it doesn't count...) and meditate on what the music and the text say about Christ, our relationship to him, and his second coming.
An interesting thing that I notice in both these women's writing is the intertwining of not only Easter and Christmas themes, but also, within the Christmas celebration, an awareness of the Second Coming, and excitement about that. What a cool idea! Bethany's friend had some good ideas for this as well.
Speaking of the second coming, which I was a few points ago, because Advent is a time of preparing to celebrate Christ's first coming (incarnation) as well as looking forward in anticipation and preparation for the second coming, I like to use Advent as a time to study parables about the kingdom of heaven and Bible texts about the wedding feast that is to come. Start with the story of the virgins and the oil, and go from there.