Scripture is the basis of what we, children of God and followers of Christianity, are and do. Other religions have their scriptures on which their beliefs and practices are based but to Christians, the Bible is the authoritative source. We share the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, with our Jewish brothers and sisters and, to a certain extent, our Islamic ones as well. The scriptures are the story of humankind’s relationship with the deity they call God, the God we refer to as Father and sometimes Mother. Scripture takes us through the ups and downs of that relationship: times of creation, times of sin, times of judgment, repentance and reconciliation. We read the history of salvation, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the growth of the religion which bears his title, Christ-ian. We hear a lot of scripture, especially Hebrew scripture from the prophets, during Advent. The prophets tell us of what is wrong but also gives us hope for things being made right. And the scriptures tell us of Jesus teaching us just how to do it.
One of the great topics of scripture is sin, a word that isn’t very popular these days. We may call it wrongdoing, misdemeanor, wickedness, transgression, or even crime, but in reality the plain old word “sin” is the most descriptive. Sin is something that separates, whether it is people from other people and even people from God. Sin is a destructive choice, one that puts self above others, including God. It’s no wonder we don’t like the word and shy around about using it. Still, if people hadn’t sinned, there would have been no Advent—or Christmas or Epiphany or Easter. Without sin, we would have no need for a redeemer.
Sabbath is an important word not only for Advent but for every season. God created the world in six days and then took the seventh day off. Christians observe Sunday as a day of worship and rest, or at least, that’s what it used to be. We’ve become a 24/7 culture and we must be busy doing something, even if we call it “recreation.” It never occurs to us that God rested on that seventh day; he didn’t play golf or shop in the local stores or online ones either. The idea of Sabbath is to slow down, to rest the body and mind. It isn’t easy; things keep popping up that need doing, especially since we are so busy during the week with work, family and the like. Still, Sabbath is important. Think of Advent as a Sabbath season, a time to slow down, to spend more time thinking, especially thinking about God. It sounds almost hilarious to think about slowing down in the season just before Christmas with all the preparations that entails, but that’s precisely why we need some Sabbath time. It’s making time for God.
The church marks different seasons, like Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Each season has particular propers, prayers and hymns. Some seasons, however, have special services and Advent is one of them. Some churches and many cathedrals do a yearly Service of Lessons and Carols during Advent. It’s like the Easter Vigil in that it features a number of readings from various parts of the Bible from Genesis onward. The Lessons and Carols intersperse the readings that trace salvation history and the prophecies of a messiah and a redeemer and up through the birth of Jesus with topical pieces of music for soloists and choir as well as congregational hymns. Among the treats of the season is listening to the service on BBC radio from King’s College Cambridge.
A second special service done during Advent is the Blue Christmas observance. For many people, Christmas is not a time of joyous preparation. Perhaps a loved one has recently died or the person has undergone some other kind of loss that can lead to depression and feelings of hopelessness. Culture generally gives the message that such feelings have no place in this time of frenzied celebrations and that can deepen the feelings of hopelessness and grief. The Blue Christmas service, usually held on December 21st, the longest night of the year is a quiet one that speaks to comfort and support of those whom culture ignores or gives the message that they need to just get over whatever it is that is amiss. The emotions and feelings of those in grief or depression are honored while being offered hope and healing through acknowledgement of the journey on which they are walking. It is a powerful service for all its gentleness. It can be a lifeline to a suffering soul.
Some churches hold a rather more exuberant celebration a friend’s church calls “The Banging of the Pans to Chase Away the Dragons of Darkness. There are prayers, hymns or Taizé chants, perhaps a video, and then everyone goes outside to bang loudly on whatever pots and pans they have brought. Like the Blue Christmas service, it is held on or around December 21st, and by all accounts, every year it has successfully chased the dragon away because the nights after the service have gradually begun to get longer. The service concludes with a copious consumption of hot chocolate. Hot cider or even hot tea might also be as efficacious.
Sin is a human failing, but Advent offers scripture and special services that offer hope and healing, joy and exuberance. Taking time for a bit of Sabbath time will help as well. Above all, it’s about remembering God and God’s children, all of them.