Advent is coming to its crescendo …
when heavenly choirs will sing …
and the stable will stir with the raw sounds of new life …
and even so,
I am still acutely aware
that Christmas has not yet come.
Advent is one of my favorite seasons on the church calendar. What can I say, I always cheer for the underdog; and Advent is sort of the underdog of the church calendar. It always seems to get shortchanged by a culture that begins selling and celebrating Christmas while I’m still answering the door to Trick-or-Treaters.
But I will not be deterred! Every year, it is almost my battle cry: I will not skip Advent! I will honor the season of waiting by, you know, WAITING! I will listen to the voices of prophets! I will pay attention to the longing and the yearning, and not simply give in to the voices crying out for instant gratification! I will not be sucked in to a consumer mentality, but will find creative ways of giving of myself and giving sacrificially.
Each year, I answer these challenges with a sliding-scale of success: some years I honor Advent better than other years.
But this year, I have no trouble entering into an Advent state-of-mind. Advent means “coming”; it signals change. It is a time of waiting and hope, of expectation and anticipation, and – sometimes – of uncertainty and anxiety.
No problem. I’m there.
This year, just before Advent began, the session of the congregation I serve finished 4 months of honest, prayerful, difficult budget conversations. And they decided that the best way to be faithful disciples of Jesus and faithful stewards of their resources was to move from full-time pastoral leadership to part-time pastoral leadership.
Their decision invites me into a time of discernment: a time of prayer and listening for God’s guidance about how I am to move forward in the ministry to which God has called me. And this time of discernment brings with it all of those things that are characteristic of the season of Advent: waiting, hope, expectation, anticipation, and (sometimes) uncertainty and anxiety.
It also calls forth the question: How do we wait?
What do we do in Advent that helps us make peace with the uncertainty … and frees us to focus on the hope?
I think the answer is: we remember.
Ancient peoples did not have the scientific knowledge that we have about our solar system. They did not know that the daylight hours grew shorter in the winter because of the earth’s position on its axis. The waning sunlight caused anxiety and uncertainty. Often, they lit huge bonfires on the longest night – the winter solstice – to remind themselves of the sun’s faithful appearance each morning and to comfort themselves with its warmth and light. Their antidote to anxiety was memory.
Isn’t that also what the Israelite prophets did? They spoke of the vision they had seen – a vision of the future that God was planning – and taught the people to trust that future by remembering God’s faithfulness in years and generations and centuries past. “How can we trust that God will save us and not abandon us?” the people ask. “Remember God’s mighty acts, God’s faithfulness throughout the generations,” reply the prophets.
From Isaiah 41: But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off ’; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, l will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
This Advent season, I invite all of us to remember God’s faithfulness … and I invite us to be a prophetic voice – the voice crying out in the wilderness – to those who may have trouble remembering that God is forever faithful and will never abandon us. After all, that’s what we’re celebrating on December 25: Emmanuel, God-with-us. Perhaps in surprising and unexpected ways, but always with us.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! Amen.
While that title might look like Greek … it’s actually the Irish translation of Shrove Tuesday. (Irish seems appropriate, since we’re coming up on St. Patrick’s Day next week.)
If I knew how to pronounce the Irish phrase, I might start using it instead of Mardi Gras (which is the French translation of Fat Tuesday.)
Mairt Inide. Pancake Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras. Carnival (which is Latin for “farewell to meat”). Fat Tuesday.
No matter the name, they all have a common heritage and point to the same thing: the day before the beginning of Lent.
The early church marked the time leading up to Easter as a time when the faithful would be prayerful and reflective in preparation to rededicate themselves … and as a time when those who were new to the church would prepare for baptism.
Later, an emphasis on Lenten fasting was added to the priority already placed on prayer …
Easter, of course, is in the spring … and in the centuries before our food system was industrialized and before produce was plentiful year-round, the weeks leading up to Easter found families living on the dwindling supplies that had been stored for winter.
Produce that had been stored (what was left of it) was beginning to look rather sorry. The grains held up pretty well, but meat was scarce and chickens don’t lay eggs in winter.
Smaller and plainer meals were not voluntary or optional. They were just a part of life, in that day and age.
But Lenten fasting gave purpose to their poverty. It allowed the people to see their circumstances as having spiritual significance.
Of course, with advances in refrigeration, transportation and agriculture, Lenten eating is a very different experience for us today. For example:
The day before Lent is sometimes called Pancake Tuesday, because making pancakes was a good way to rid the house of some of the richer food items (eggs, sugar, etc.) before Lent. But the idea of getting rid of a surplus in early spring (before the fields were even planted) would have seemed crazy in certain cultures at various times in history
The tradition of Mardi Gras or Carnival is based on the idea of gorging oneself on all the vices (rich food, strong drink and, well, whatever else) before entering into a penitential season. Again, the notion of such luxury at the end of a long winter would not have made sense to our fore-mothers and fore-fathers.
On Sunday, I invited the congregation I serve to NOT give up something for Lent this year. Instead, I suggested that we all be more mindful of what and how we eat.
Here are some suggestions:
instead of giving up chocolate or coffee or tea, pledge that you will only eat or drink fair trade chocolate or coffee or tea;
instead of giving up fast food, pledge to slow down (and not rush) your meals but to sit down with family and take time to connect across the table;
instead of giving up eating out at restaurants, pledge to eat only at restaurants that purchase their ingredients from local farmers;
instead of giving up a particular item (chips, soda, etc.), pledge to read the list of ingredients on the food labels of everything you eat.
Happy Mairt Inide, friends. And a blessings on your Lenten journey.
From the RevGalBlogPals:
Where I am it is dark, and it is cold, and it is snowing. I really wanted to stay in bed with the electric blanket cranked this morning. Share five things that made getting out of bed worthwhile for you today!
Why did I get out of bed today? My answers:
1. Because I have to take my nephew to school today.
2. Because vacation is right around the corner.
3. Because I woke up to two large dogs licking my face.
4. Because there are two new members joining the church on Sunday.
5. Because my sermon isn’t done! (eek)
As the holiday season approaches, the frenzy spins faster and faster as it swings us toward the year’s end. But in ancient times, this season was intended to evoke a quiet thoughtfulness in us rather than a frenzy. It was to be a time of slowing down, of resting, of renewing our strength. After the harvest, when the world becomes cold and seemingly barren, there is life that is resting and waiting to germinate.
In the upcoming days and weeks, I invite you to be intentional about finding some time for quiet thoughtfulness. In fact, I even have a suggestion for how to do so. Take a few minutes out of your day and take a Daily Advent Retreat. Use this online devotional tool to help you carve out time for reflection, in the midst of all the holiday hustle and bustle.