For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. — Titus 2:11-14
All about Advent
Advent begins the liturgical year, which got full head of steam going after Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) basically took over the remants of Roman Empire power. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The word means “a coming,” specifically the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. It looks to the prophets who saw the Messiah coming, to John the Bapitst, the last of them, who witnessed to his coming, to the witnesses of the birth of Jesus, and to the hope of the Lord’s return on the last day. It develops our hope and our capacity to wait. It also helps us see all the ways the Lord has come to us day by day and the transformation Jesus brings moment by moment.
Protestants have issues with empty rituals, like Advent has become for many. By the 1500’s a lot of Jesus followers were fed up with Catholic and Orthodox folks bickering about the right way to fold an altar cloth or some such nonsense. Actually, they objected to the “altar” itself, since it had become a replica of the Old Testament temple and Jesus fulfilled and transcended the Temple. The Lord’s presence makes the church, the people, the temple of the Holy Spirit, Paul says. So empty rituals are a problem. Many abandoned disciplines like Advent.
Nevertheless, a ritual season, like Advent has a lot of great things going for it. If those things become empty, coercive, or corrupted, then it is not so good. But during Advent, let’s not throw the baby Jesus out with the dirty bathwater of church history.
Rituals are not inherently wrong. Empty ritual is wrong, as is any ritual that replaces, obscures, or detracts from having a vibrant, Spirit to spirit relationship with Jesus. Are rituals commanded in the church? No, not really. Baptism and communion, certainly come close. But God is not looking to see if we have completed the right rituals; God sees the heart. She seeks those who worship Him “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Rituals can be beneficial, but externalized, intellectualized, rote rites should never replace inner devotion.
Sacred spaces created by ritual
All that being said, Advent has hundreds of years of history, prayer and practice that makes it a special time of the Christian year. It is one of those “sacred spaces” that are created by repitition.
Rituals (like spiritual disciplines, worship events, and seasons of fasting or prayer) are acts done with emotion and intention which help an individual or group connect with the Spirit in the context of faith, hope and love for the purposes of healing and transformation. Ritual is a means for our personal and collective voices to express our longing and creatively explore the unseen dimensions of life. They lead us beyond our conscious, everyday experiences into the realms of spiritual awareness and connection with the image of God in each of us and in all creation. Rituals create “thin places” where heaven and earth kiss.
During Advent meetings and on Christmas Eve, we create sacred places where we are enabled to release our unspoken hope and unacknowledged sorrow. The whole season of waiting for the blessed hope with the prophets, with John the Baptist, with Mary and Joseph, with the shepherds and magi, and with everyone in the story is a safe place for our deeper selves to feel our sorrows and hope and see them transformed.
Francis Weller writes:
“We are creatures of ritual. We have been using rituals for tens of thousands of years. Ancient burial sites include careful placement of artifacts with the dead, such as bones carved and covered with ochre, pieces of flint for the hunt in the next world, food, and ornamented beads. In fact, grief for the loss of a loved one may have elicited our first ritual actions. There is something about ritual that resonates deep in the bone. It is a ‘language older than word,’ relying not so much on speech as on gestures, rhythms, movements and emotion. In this sense, ritual addresses something far more primal than language.”
Peter Shaffer, Equus says, “Can you think of anything worse one can do to anybody than take away their worship? … without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that.”
Participating in an alive Advent might be one of the most alternative things we can do.
Resources from the Ignatians
A perky website that tells you everything: calendars, readings, family rituals, wreaths, you name it.
The Advent pilgrimage: Five things to try (by Rod)
Instructions from the Lutherans:
Another Video about the origins and history of Advent.
What do we do with this?
Today, in the absence of communal rituals that hold and sustain our psychic lives, we often unconsciously fall into ritualized behaviors (nightly TV, Friday night at the bar, Eagles/Phillies games, videogame obsessions, etc.). These patterns, however, do not carry what is required to make them soul-nourishing practices. In the end we will either participate in ritual deliberately, which binds us to soul, community, nature and the sacred, or we will be reduced to repetitive patterns of addiction, compulsion, or routines lacking in artistry and renewal.
Check to see if you have an Advent replacement going. The resistance you feel to the discipline season may be more about how locked up you are than about how stupid the season is.