TEN THINGS ABOUT ADVENT FOLKS SHOULD KNOW
A friend recently said, "my peeps aren't into Advent. How would you explain it, in ten things or less?" OK, she didn't say ten things. I did.
1. Advent is not not technically part of Christmas. In my church, someone might take you out back and give you a stern talking to if you try to sing a Christmas carol during Advent. "O Come O Come Emmanuel" is an Advent hymn (suitably, in a minor key) not a Christmas carol.
2. Candles are not the only ritual of Advent. The confession of sin is an integral part of an advent service as well.
3. Advent is a time of preparation (focused waiting) for the coming of the kingdom.
4. Advent has a weird (ironic) split time scheme because we wait for the coming of the kingdom (announced by John the Baptist, brought by the Messiah) and the coming of the kingdom (announced by the prophets and not yet brought by the Messiah).
5. Advent, therefore, can be a bit confusing. It is interesting to me that the church for a couple of thousand years has not tried to square that circle. It just nods knowingly at us as we say, "this is hard to understand."
6. Gift giving is not an Advent thing. Or a Christmas thing really. It's an Epiphany thing (Right, what's Epiphany?).
7. Although you might need to "do Christmas things" (or think you do) within a culture which has made Christmas into something that lasts throughout November and December, you aren't "doing Advent" when you are doing them. In fact, one way of "doing Advent" is by not doing Christmas until Christmas. People used to go out and get trees on Christmas Eve. And keep them up for the entire Christmas season (that is the twelve days and nights of Christmas from Christmas Day until Epiphany). Although I do watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" during December, I am always aware of doing something inappropriate.
8. Advent Calendars can be a helpful way of thinking about Advent themes but not if they are really Christmas calendars on Advent time scheme. There is no specific relation between chocolate angels and Advent.
9. Advent themes are the coming of the kingdom, the longing for the kingdom, waiting for the kingdom, lament over absence of the kingdom, and a celebration of some of the instruments of the coming of the kingdom (especially Mary but also angels, prophets, John the Baptist and family, etc.). We hear prophecies of the peacable kingdom from Isaiah, of the end of the world from St. Matthew, of the coming of the Messiah from John the Baptist. And we hear Mary's Magnificat.
10. Advent is a liturgical season best understood within the context of an entire liturgical year. Otherwise, it becomes, de facto, a kind of extension of Christmas (a version of religious consumerism--if twelve days of Christmas are good, why not have forty?). It parallels Lent in some ways. It mirrors Epiphany. It establishes a distinct rhythm for the Christian year. It is a great example of the shaping power of liturgy, asking folks to pay attention to what's going on in the readings, the music, the rituals, because the distinctions and the differences matter.
11. I know I said Ten Things. But I also wanted to say this. Some will say, there is no right way to celebrate Advent. The only important thing is that your heart is in the right place. I think, though, that the purpose of Advent is to make you realize that you have no idea of whether your heart is in the right place; in fact, you are probably the worst judge in heaven and earth of that. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't have new practices (like ironic advent meditations) or a renewable liturgy (like entire services of lament and moan--an idea I had); but I think it ought to mean that those things are informed by the traditions not done in ignorance of them.
On the other hand, it might not matter anyway. It seems like a lot of work to make distinctions if the main thing is getting presents.