Until recent years, Advent has been considered a mini-Lent, a time of penitence, the act of repenting, feeling regret for sins or even particular acts which show that regret and sorrow. In monasteries and convents penitence, especially during Lent and Advent, was strict with meatless days, extra hours of prayer or even corporal acts like self-flagellation. Penitents visiting particular shrines went at least part of the journey completely on their knees rather than walking as a sign of their penitence and repentance. Even though today things are usually not as spartan or rigorous, penitence still has a place in our Advent observances, even more so than our usual daily ones. We can say the General Confession each morning which gets the day started without the burdens of yesterday, we can give up something (a cup of Starbuck’s, for instance?) and put the money that would have been spent into a gift for a child whose name is on a tree in the church or the mall, we can make donations of time to food banks and homeless feeding programs (or backpack ministries like Backpacks of Love at St. Aidan’s in Alpharetta, Georgia). The thing is to do something for someone who doesn’t expect it and who may not be able to reciprocate. The best way to show penitence is to make amends – or honor God by caring for the less fortunate children of God.
Prepare is one of the watch words of Advent. Jesus tells the stories like the Wise and Foolish Virgins who are waiting for the bridegroom to come. Half of them have extra lamp oil, just in case, but the other half just figure he’ll be along before their oil runs out. That half guessed wrong and were excluded from the feast. Other stories tell of people needing to be prepared for the coming of a person of importance like a master or a trusted person such as an apostle, prophet or even someone who may give an unexpected message. It’s more than making sure the fruitcakes are made ahead of time enough to age properly or that there are enough cookies for not just the kids’ school party or the coffee hour at church. It’s much more than making sure all the proper people get the proper gifts and the house and church are decorated properly for Advent and then riotously glorious for Christmas. It’s about an internal preparation, making the Christ Child welcome in the heart and life, and then extending that welcome to those same people we are encouraged to remember at this time of year (see the preceding paragraph). It all ties together – if we prepare the right way and for the right things.
We don’t use the word ponder a lot, but during Advent we tend to have our attention called to it more frequently. When the shepherds arrived at the manger scene and told the message they had been given by the angels, we read, “But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, NRSV). Pondering is a heavy word, indicating more than just a passing thought or two on a subject. Pondering indicates giving something a lot of thought, meditating on it and teasing out what the thought means to us in terms of our understanding, lives and ministries. Pondering also invites God into the conversation, as we practice in Lectio Divina. There’s a line in the hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” that we often sing but maybe could pay more attention to: “Ponder anew/what the Almighty can do/if with His love he befriends thee.” Now there’s a thought well worth pondering.
What is Advent without the Children’s Christmas pageant? Every year, millions of children take various parts in their recreation of the Christmas story from the annunciation of Gabriel to Mary to (quite often) the visit of the Magi to the little family. Sometimes the pageant is left until close to Epiphany but most seem to have it somewhere late in Advent. How many parents have contributed dressing gowns and towels to clothe the shepherds and Joseph while someone’s doll (or even someone’s very small infant) is borrowed to play the featured role of the baby Jesus? It’s a time for grandparents to sigh and remember their own children in the same sort of play, while the parents happily take pictures of their child playing Mary, Joseph, the innkeeper or even an angel. Even the most “Bah, humbug!” of folks can enjoy the story the little ones provide. It’s also a reminder of the children Jesus came to teach about the kingdom of God and the little children he called to him when others would have merely pushed them aside as unimportant, without a voice or even any attention.
“Prepare the way, O Zion, your Christ is drawing near!” as the hymn tells us (p. 65). It’s almost time.