One of the characters who appears early in the birth narrative of Jesus is a lady named Elizabeth, a cousin of Mary’s. Elizabeth was the wife of Zechariah, a priest at the temple in Jerusalem. They were an older couple, past the time of having children, yet unexpectedly, miraculously, Elizabeth was about six months pregnant. It must have caused a lot of talk in the town, but it made her the perfect person for Mary to visit, not just to get out of town to avoid the wagging tongues when they found out she was pregnant even though betrothal was as good as marriage but possibly to give her parents time to adjust to the idea that the child wasn’t Joseph’s. At any rate, Elizabeth could use some help and Mary could use some empathy. It was a perfect match. Oh, and the fact that Elizabeth’s baby would grow up to be John, the Baptizer for Mary’s child Jesus . . . well, as Alfred Einstein said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
Eating is one of the enjoyable pastimes, and there’s plenty of that during Advent. Unlike holidays like Passover, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, Advent doesn’t really have any particular holiday meal or standard party fare. Instead it offers pre-Christmas baked goods, cheese balls and eggnog, perhaps with the addition of hot cider and warm gingerbread with lemon sauce and similar treats. Of course, people bake cookies and pies in preparation for Christmas, but they also do it in order to provide home-made gifts that show more care and perhaps more love than the most expensive purchased gift. Even before the Book of Common Prayer, the last Sunday before Advent was “Stir Up Sunday.” The collect for the day read, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people...” That was the signal to begin the preparation of the cakes, pies, puddings, tarts and all kinds of baked things for Christmas. In the current American BCP it has been moved to the third Sunday of Advent and in some denominations it is given on the fourth Sunday. Whichever it is, when things start to get stirred up I’m sure liberal tasting went on, and perhaps a few of the goodies helped to fill out the meals during that period when the cooks were busy with holiday preparations and regular meals might be a bit more skimpy as a result.
Advent brings wreaths and swags of evergreens— cedar, pine and spruce—to decorate doors, windows, balustrades, handrails and tables. Advent wreaths traditionally have evergreen wreaths as the base that holds the candles that mark the Sundays and Christmas Day. There’s something festive about the scent of evergreen. The green was a welcome color, contrasting with the white of snow and the various browns and blacks of bare trunks and branches of trees outside which might appear dead but would bring out tiny green leaves at the first hint of spring warmth. Evergreens are traditional in Advent wreaths and, of course, swags, sprays and arrangements that bridge both Advent and Christmas.
Emmanuel is the reason for the season, so to speak. As Isaiah puts it, “. . . [T]he young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14, NRSV). Matthew repeats the prophecy as “. . . a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” (1:23). The names are used interchangeably although the Hebrew spelling is Immanuel while the Greek is Emmanuel. So why do we call him Jesus? Because Emmanuel or Immanuel is a sort of title rather than a name a child would be called. It doesn’t change the fact that the baby boy born to Mary was, indeed, “God with us,” just as the prophets told us. The baby isn’t resting in the nativity scene just yet, but we sing hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in church and remember that we should “. . . [R]ejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Luckily, Advent allows us to rejoice, perhaps a bit more quietly than those who are already deep into Christmas, but nonetheless, we enjoy the hope and wait more or less patiently to welcome the Light of the World that is coming, even symbolically.
In the midst of decorating and stirring up in preparation, don’t forget to hope—and quietly rejoice.