B stands for beginning. Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, the New Year of the church. We read different things in each of the three years of the Sunday lectionary (list of readings) and two years of the Divine Office (readings for every day). We also mark the beginning of a season of contemplation and perhaps penitence but definitely expectation. Advent is a quiet little season, church-wise, although it is usually very busy with events and pageants and cantatas and the like. People are encouraged to slow down a bit, take a break from the pre-Christmas rush and think about holy things, the coming of the baby in the manger, the meaning of his life and ministry and the impact it should have on us as Christians. It’s a season made for theological reflections, an exploration of what happened, why it is important, what our tradition and culture say about it, what we believe about it and what action we are inspired to take as a result of it. It’s a good spiritual exercise for every season but especially for Advent.
Bethlehem is kind of an obvious choice since the whole of Advent season is a pointer to the miracle that occurred in a stable in Bethlehem. Bethlehem comes from two words, bayit meaning house but with implications of home, family, temple or economic sphere, and lehem meaning bread or, more loosely, food in general. There were actually two towns named Bethlehem although the one we are most familiar with is the one in Judah, the southern part of the country. The Bible places Rachel’s grave near Bethlehem and it was the home of David who became king and one of the earthly ancestors of Jesus. Bethlehem is now a war-torn place, far from the rather pastoral, peaceful place David knew, but for Christians it is still the place where Jesus was born and so is a sacred place.
Bells ring during Advent, most obviously (and not really associated with Advent, per se) next to the red kettles of the Salvation Army. The donations those kettles receive help to further the work of the Salvation Army whose charitable works include rehabilitation, mission, prayer, disaster relief and assistance for the poor. When a doorbell rings during Advent, it’s sometimes the arrival of an expected and very welcome guest come to spend the holidays. In the malls there are strains of “Silver Bells” playing as a background to the ring of the opening cash register but now and again, in both shop and church, there are renditions of the “Carol of the Bells” wishing everyone a Merry Christmas while recalling the sound of church bells ringing across the landscape of large cities and small towns alike, oftentimes now muffled or silent.
The word behold isn’t heard in the NRSV version of the Bible except in the Old Testament but in older translations, like the KJV, it was a word that carried a lot of importance. In Luke, for instance, when Gabriel visits Mary, part of the annunciation is “…Behold, you will conceive…” (1:31). Matthew reports Joseph’s quandary about finding a pregnant fiancée and states, “… [B]ehold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream” (1:20). Even Isaiah is read as part of the prophecy about the coming of the messiah, “…Behold, a virgin (or a young woman) shall conceive…” (7:14). Behold has a lot of impact. More than jut “Look here,” it emphasizes the importance of the event or the message and, in this case, the message is very important indeed. “See? This isn’t just any baby.” “Look, it’s okay for you to accept something your family and neighbors won’t understand or approve.” “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy…”
Bayberry occurs to me for a personal reason. During the pre-Christmas season (the church of my childhood and youth never used the word “Advent” or observed the season), we would have decorative candles around the living and dining room, usually grayish-green colored tapers made from bayberries. It was considered good luck to burn the whole bayberry candle down to the stub before New Year’s, but mostly it was a clean and pleasant fragrance in the house that already had the scents of seasonal baking and decorative greenery. They are hard to find, real ones, anyway, and I do miss them. One whiff and I am back home. I guess there is a bit of wishing in the recollection, but even though I have three blue and one pink candle in my Advent wreath, I still miss those greenish bayberry candles that were a holiday season tradition.
As I consider the traditions of Advent, I realize I don’t need a lot of “stuff” like decorations or presents or cards. I just need to stop, take a deep breath, sit down and contemplate the reason for Advent. It needs to become a spiritual gestation period before the loud, joyous, festive season of Christmas that marks his birth.