Longing for Advent

img_5160Longing for Advent

“I have a complaint,” she declared with arm raised to get my attention. The closing song had barely finished when she quickly came to the front of our sanctuary. “Why didn’t we sing any Christmas songs? And where are the Christmas decorations?”

Without waiting for a response, she continued to explain that our worship songs were too depressing for the season and our sanctuary too drab. She contended that the church should do the whole Christmas celebration better than the world around us. From her perspective, that meant Christmas songs and Christmas decorations ought to be full, joyful, and vibrant throughout the whole Advent season.

Our worship team receives similar critiques with some regularity at the start of Advent each year. “I just don’t care for this quiet, reflective stuff at this time of year,” would be a good way of summarizing most of that feedback.

In this context, I find myself longing for Advent to be celebrated as Advent and not just an extension of the Christmas celebrations. That longing has prompted me to consider how we can usher our congregation into and through the Advent season. One of the questions I’ve asked is: “How do we cultivate a longing for our Saviour to come to us?”

Marking the New Year

For the last few years, I have started our first Sunday of Advent by shouting “Happy New Year” to our congregation. A chorus of people respond likewise “Happy New Year.” But then the puzzled faces start popping up throughout the sanctuary. After a moment of awkward silence, I explain that the first Sunday of Advent is the start of the Christian liturgical calendar; it is our New Year’s Day. “But,” I add, “the first Sunday of Advent is nothing like our cultural celebrations of New Year’s Day.”

Unlike the fireworks, late night parties, and laughter associated with our December 31 – January 1 celebrations, the Christian New Year begins in darkness and silence. In one of the traditional Advent passages, Isaiah describing “a people walking in darkness.” Advent begins, not with the angelic sky lighting of Christmas Day, but by acknowledging the ways in which we continue to walk in darkness.

Sitting in Darkness

One of the ways we acknowledge this darkness is through our use of candles. Most Sundays during the year, we have a child walk a Christ candle to the front of our sanctuary while the congregation sings the first song during our worship gathering. At the end of worship, the same child (or another child from the same family) walks the candle to the back of the sanctuary, enacting for us how the light of Christ leads us into service throughout the world.

But during Advent, the Christ candle remains unlit at the front of the sanctuary, visualizing for us that we live in darkness when we are separated from God. We give room to acknowledge our sins, our personal and universal entanglements with Sin, and the weighty darkness that accompanies them.

This attention to the darkness of our hearts and our world apart from God also leads us to keep a sparsely decorated sanctuary for the first couple weeks of Advent. These visual cues to emptiness provide permission for us to grieve, lament, and share our personal stories of pain. In order facilitate room for that lament, we have, in previous years, invited people to share “in progress” testimonies where the outcome is not yet clear. We have also added more silent spaces into our worship, especially during the first couple weeks of Advent.

Anticipating Jesus

Though we create room to see our darkness, the darkness is not the whole story. We have looked for multiple ways to anticipate Jesus throughout Advent. Two of them are included below.

Against the backdrop of our sins and the unlit Christ Candle, we attend to other lighting in the sanctuary. We frequently dim or turn off several of the main lights in the sanctuary for the first week of Advent. Each week, we add a bit more of the light back into our worship space. We also have followed the tradition of lighting Advent candles each Sunday. The smaller light from these candles serves to awaken hope within us, reminding us that our darkness is driven away with the coming of Jesus Christ. This light intensifies as the number of lit candles increases each week, until a new Christ Candle is lit on Christmas Day.

Throughout Advent, we have also initiated a call and response with our children during our worship gatherings. Standing at the front, facing the rest of the congregation, the children call “Jesus is coming!” to which the rest of the congregation responds: “He’s almost here!”. The first week of Advent this call starts off as a small whisper. The second week we say it with a loud whisper. The third and fourth weeks, we crescendo toward a loud outdoor voice that is full of birthday-party excitement. On Christmas Day, we change the call and response, so the kids say “Jesus has come!” and the congregation replies “He will come again!”

How about Your Community?

While I am sure we will still hear complaints about the heaviness (and lack of Christmas songs) at the start of Advent, I also anticipate that others will express thanks for this approach. Over the past few years, some have already let us know how much they needed the freedom to be real and raw in worship during this season, especially since our surrounding culture zealously demands we maintain the appearance of holiday cheer.

Within your context,

  • How do you mark the beginning of the Christian year?
  • What visual cues do you provide to encourage others to recognize their need for a Saviour?
  • How do you build a sense of anticipation in your community that the light of Christ is coming into the world and into our hearts?
  • In what ways do you make room in worship for people to lament, grieve, and acknowledge the darkness they find themselves in?
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