We need Advent. You know, that time of the year when folks begin counting down before Christmas, counting down for time off from work + school, counting down to the Winter Solstice, or simply counting down to the end of the year. Whether it is for religious, spiritual, or secular reasons – or whatever reason at all, December seems to be a month of anticipation for many. And, I think we need the anticipation of something. Because anticipation intersects with hope. And, damn, are we a people who need hope. Can I get an Amen?
In all seriousness though, this world really does need the season of Advent this year – and every year, actually. We need something to look forward to. To countdown to. We need some hope.
But, more than that big moment or big feeling we are anticipating, we need the preparation + waiting that the season of Advent offers us. The anticipation is a bit like living for something in the future. But, Advent, the weeks of anticipation before “the big event”, is a season that calls us to be present from day to day. Advent offers us a chance to move through the season, aware + mindful of each passing moment, instead of just wishing time would fly by and we could get to the “big event”.
Ultimately, wishing the time away and only being excited for Christmas or the solstice or the end of the year or whatever excited us, leaves us feeling empty when it’s all over. Do you know that feeling? Waiting for Christmas, dyyyying to get to the big day, and then it comes, and even if it was amazing + fun + cozy, suddenly it is over. And you’re left feeling like… was that all? Oh, how many times I have experienced Advent + Christmas in this way!
But, as I have leaned into Advent more and more, I believe that it is in these weeks of Advent that lead up to Christmas and the last weeks of the year that we can find a much deeper meaning to all of this holiday hustle + bustle. A way to avoid that empty, “is that all?” feeling. A deeper purpose that guides us forward.
Now, let me be clear about one thing. Even though Advent is a religious season in the Christian church, I truly believe that all of us can experience it as a source of inspiration and spiritual growth. I am fully aware that many Christians will say that it is part of the celebration of the story of the birth of Jesus (and it is, those are the roots of Advent). But, even that story, even remembering and experiencing the traditional themes of Advent, is something that can give perspective, spiritual growth, and meaning to anyone during this season – Christian or not.
And just a disclaimer: By expanding + including all people in the recognition of Advent, I am in no way taking away the heart of the origin of Advent. I am, in fact, simply being more inclusive than exclusive. Because I deeply think that believers and non-believers can all find a sense of meaning + truth in the rituals, traditions, and stories of the holiday season, of Christmas and Advent. I am simply saying that I believe that no one has to declare belief one way or the other in order to participate or find inspiration in a traditional Christian holiday.
There are deep, universal truths to be found in Advent celebrations + the stories of Christmas. And, Christianity is simply one of a plethora of religions that are all part of a deeper river of unity. A river of wisdom traditions that unite us all in our diverse beliefs. With that said, I invite you all in to this Advent journey – whatever you believe or don’t believe. I’m inviting you to something that is higher, bigger, deeper, wider than one religion’s traditions. I’m talking about the hope of a season of preparation and waiting.
And hope is for everyone.
It all began with Adventus
So, Advent. What is it really and what does it mean? In the Christian tradition, Advent is the anticipation of Christmas Day, of the celebration of birth of Jesus. The word Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus, which means coming or arrival. It is celebrated on the 4 Sundays, or the month-ish, before Christmas Day. It is sort of a Christian countdown, but with deeper meaning. It is a time for waiting and for preparation. An attempt to bring a bit of perspective and a slower pace to the hurried frenzy of the holiday season. And, a way to remember that this season is about hope, light, love, and joy… not consumerism and stress.
The roots of Advent
No one really knows when the celebration of Advent began, but there are historical guesses that say that Advent began in the late 4th century. Back in these ancient days of very early Christianity, the ritual of baptism (becoming a member of the community of faith) was a long process. Before the ceremony of baptism with water took place, there were weeks of preparation. A sort of initiation into the faith much like the confirmation process is many churches today. Of course, there are many religions that have initiation ceremonies to welcome new believers/members into the community.
In early Christianity, the initiation (baptism) occurred on Easter, with the preparation time of learning + fasting + contemplating happening during Lent, the 6 weeks leading up to Easter. As Christianity became more popular in the 4oos, there was a need for another time of the year for the process of preparation, fasting, baptism and initiation. It was decided that the time before Epiphany (the celebration of the Wise Men coming to baby Jesus in the stable) would be used. And baptism would occur on Epiphany – in the month of January. These weeks before were the 6 weeks of Advent, which later were cut down to the 4 weeks before Christmas Day.
So, to shorten all of this: Advent began as a preparation time for initiation into a community. During that time, and throughout much of history, it was filled with silence, contemplation, fasting, and other spiritual practices. It was a somber, quiet time of intentions and commitment.
Traditions + Symbols
Today, much of that intention, commitment, and contemplation has disappeared, even in churches, and been replaced with a sort of rushing towards Christmas. Something we are all guilty of, regardless of spirituality or tradition. Hundreds of years ago, there were special hymns sung during Advent Sundays in churches. No “Joy to the World”. That song and many other traditional Christmas hymns were saved for Christmas Day. In anticipating Christmas, there has been a tendency to hop over the deeper meanings of Advent, the opportunities to be quiet + reflective – something that the entire winter season invites us to do.
There are, however, a few traditions and symbols that have held up for many years in traditional Advent celebrations on Sundays. Plus, they have spilled over into secular life as well.
I’d say the central symbolic figure of Advent is an Advent wreath, the church’s own sort of Advent calendar. The wreath is made of 4 candles, often in a circle, hence it’s a wreath. But modern day versions also have 4 candles in a row. People in homes all over use Advent wreaths/candlesticks today. One candle is lit each Sunday throughout the season – remember, there are 4 Sundays in Advent. Growing up +working in the church in the past, I loved the ritual lighting of the candle each Sunday. Often there was a different person or family who would light the candle (s) and read something related to that Sunday’s theme. Lina and I also celebrate with an Advent wreath on our table, lighting a new candle as each Sunday passes in December.
How to have a meaningful Advent today
So, now that I have filled you with way more information than you ever wanted about Advent, I want to turn back to the idea that we not all are only invited to celebrate Advent, but that we need Advent – this year, and every year, I think.
But, we need Advent in the ways that it was created + celebrated by our ancestors. I do not mean that we all need to be initiates into the Christian faith. But, I do mean that we need a slow, preparatory time before Christmas, the solstice, the end of the year, etc. We need to stop only anticipating what is to come, but also learn to wait in the present moment and experience each day as it is. We need time to reflect on our lives, on the state of the world around us, on the year that has been, on the ways we can be a part of the hope for tomorrow.
Let’s not forget that this is also the season of winter. It is the darkest time of the year. And, yes, we long for the light to return, we long for the solstice in two weeks, when the days start to grow longer again. But, right now, we are in the dark. And there is so much that sitting in the dark offers us. There is so much that waiting + being present in the moment offers us.
It is a time of rest, reflection, restoration, and healing. It is a time of magic, believing in the unseen, and hope. It is a time for rooting, remembering, and renewing. It is a time that, when it is the absolute darkest, light + love burst in. The sun returns on the solstice, making the days longer until June 21. And the Divine Source, Spirit, God, comes to us again in the story of a tiny baby born to a homeless, refugee family in a stable filled with smelly, dirty animals.
This is the season of discovering that love can be found in the most hopeless, darkest, most painful moments. It is a reminder that this world is fucked up + that our lives are often so damn hard. But, in our despair + grief + darkness, we find that there is hope + love + light.
But, we will miss all of these deep truths if we only anticipate what is to come. We will skip right over the heart of it all if we were afraid to be present in the reality of the here + now.
However, if we want to find a way to put a little more meaning + depth into the holidays, all we need to do is follow the ancient path of preparation by introducing simple daily rituals into our Advent season. Rituals such as sitting alone in the dark morning before starting the day. Lighting a candle on the Advent wreath to mark the passage of time. Writing in a journal every day. Reading from a book or a poem. Meditating once a day. Praying. Fasting. Listening.
Just a little tidbit about my Advent, Blogmas is my Advent ritual this year. It gives me a dedicated, undisturbed time of solitude to sink deep into my creativity, thoughts, and contemplations. I’m not only writing for you. I am writing as a way to process and reflect and understand and find my own sense of hope in the dark.
To soak up the most of Advent, as we make our way towards Christmas, the solstice, and the end of the year, the simplest thing we can do is to dare to just wait. To just breath + be + commit ourselves to a quiet spiritual discipline.
We need Advent. We need to slow down, reflect, and find a way to believe in hope again. Because we are fucking tired + hurting. And we need to create space for peace in our lives. So, we need to take back Advent or infuse Advent or embrace Advent or try Advent. And it isn’t complicated, friends. It just takes the courage to be present in each moment… as we countdown and anticipate what amazingness is to come.
I grew up Catholic, though I’ve since left the church for myriad reasons, and this brought back so many memories. Good ones – the plastic leaves around the metal ring of our Advent wreath, dotted with purple wax from the candles. Taking turns reading the advent prayers around the dinner table. The excitement when that fourth candle was lit – Christmas was almost here! Thank you for this journey into my past!
Mary Beth, I am so very glad that this post sparked good memories for you. I, too, have left the church for a whole host of reasons, including exclusion from serving as an ordained minister, so sometimes it’s painful to think back. But, when I remember all of those little moments that were meaningful, touching, and inspiring, I also remember that I don’t have to close the door on my past. It is part of who I am today. So, this post was actually very healing for me to write… a chance to fuse the foundations of my past to the ways that I have grown and changed in my spirituality. Anyway… I am rambling on! 😉 Thank you so much for your comment and for sharing those sweet memories of Advents of the past. xo