On Thursday, I was talking to Year 3 at St Aidan’s Primary School – that’s 7-8 year olds – about Advent. They had lots of questions. They wanted to know about Advent candles and Advent wreaths and what it all means. And it was really good to have that conversation with them because so often, our culture skips over Advent and goes straight to Christmas. Christmas trees are already up. Black Friday has pressured us into buying things we don’t need and don’t want. The Christmas films are coming on the telly; Bad Santa 2 is out in the cinemas; the Christmas muzak is blaring in supermarket aisles: ‘Tis the season to be jolly…’ No, no, no!
It’s Advent. Let’s remind ourselves about Advent.
Advent is the beginning of the church’s year. And the church’s year begins quietly – not with champagne and fireworks and dancing, like we might do on New Year’s Eve.
But there are some visible differences from last week. There are no flowers. We don’t have flowers in church in Advent and Lent. The colour is purple. I am wearing a purple chasuble and stole, and the colour on the altar and the pulpit is purple. So it’s a solemn season. It’s not quite the same as penitential Lent, reflecting on our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness, but it’s a thoughtful time, a reflective time. We didn’t sing the Gloria today, praising God in the highest heaven – did you notice? We are using the purple service books, which don’t include the Gloria.
Another one of those subtle differences that you may not notice is that we move to the next year of the lectionary. The lectionary is the pattern of readings set for every Sunday. I don’t have to sit down each week and decide what bible readings we have, they are set out for me for a period of three years, Years A, B and C. And when we finished the last Sunday of Year C, as we did last week, we start again at Year A. And in Year A, the emphasis is on the Gospel of Matthew, Year B is Mark and Year C is Luke, with bits of John spread between them and at special times in the year. If we wanted to study a special theme, we could stop using the lectionary for a few weeks and use bible readings appropriate to the theme, but the advantage of the lectionary is that we cover pretty much the whole bible – it’s like having a balanced diet. The wonderful thing is, though I don’t generally choose the readings we have Sunday by Sunday, there can be such amazing coincidences, when the readings have something very real to say about what is going on in our world today or in our church or in our lives.
The children at school were particularly interested in the Advent Candles. They got a bit confused, because there isn’t ONE way of doing Advent Candles – there are many variations. Advent Candles are a relatively recent introduction into our church practice, starting in the 19th century. They can come with 4 red candles and one white candle, or they come with 3 purple candles, one pink candle and one white candle. On the first Sunday of Advent, today, we light one of the coloured candles. Then next week, we will light the first candle and the second candle. And it builds up each week till all four coloured candles are lit on the 4th Sunday of Lent. The white candle is lit at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and it represents the coming of Jesus as a baby. This year, we are using 3 purple candles which are lit on weeks 1, 2 and 4, and the pink candle is lit on week 3, which reflects the joy that is mentioned in the psalm for that day.
Advent is a time of preparation – not so much preparation for a feast and a festival, but getting ready for the coming of Christ, for the incarnation, which is about God becoming a human being, for Jesus being born as a baby. It’s about getting ready inside, dusting down our prayers, polishing up our commitment to Christ, stirring up our desire for the kingdom of heaven. In fact, that is what Advent means – it was a Latin word which meant the solemn arrival or a god or emperor.
We are waiting for two things: We are waiting for the coming of Jesus. And we are also waiting for Jesus coming again at the end of time. As a church we have been waiting for 2,000 years, and we are still waiting. Christ will come again. We know that. And at Advent, we renew our watchfulness, looking out for the signs that Christ is coming and he will make all things new. Key words for advent are watching and waiting.
The bible readings for the four Sundays of Advent take us on a journey:
- Starting with the readings for today, the first Sunday, with prophecies of a future time when God will dwell with his people;
- We then spend two Sundays thinking about John the Baptist, whose role is to prepare the way of the Lord;
- And then the fourth Sunday is about turning towards the birth of Christ.
There are lots of layers to Advent. I didn’t tell the children in school about the big themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell, which are also part of Advent.
What does Advent mean for us? I know December is busy. I know there is a lot to do. But I would encourage you to engage with Advent, to help prepare yourself spiritually for Christmas. You might spend a little longer on your prayers. Or join us for Morning Prayer every now and then. Or you could take the Sunday readings home with you and read them during the week and reflect on them. You might want to get one of the many books to help you think about Advent. Some of my favourites include:
- Kenneth Stevenson, Watching & Waiting
- Janet Morley, haphazard by starlight
In the Orthodox Church, Advent is a time of fasting, and they eat a vegan diet. Anglicans are generally a bit weak on fasting.
To be honest, I have hardly begun to explain Advent. There is a lot going on in this season. It is so easy to sleepwalk through Advent. Today’s readings encourage us to wake up, pay attention, be alert. Things may well start to happen!