Advent. For some, it’s a countdown to Christmas. For others, it marks the beginning of the Christian calendar year. For most Christians, it is a season of preparation: not just to celebrate the birth of Jesus but to renew our hearts that we might see Christ in the here and now as well as in hope and expectation of his second coming.
When we are children or new to Christian faith, Advent mostly seems to be about counting down to Christmas. Advent calendars, either the candle wreaths lit in weekly worship (or even in the home) or the calendars with perforated windows (bonus for the ones with chocolate morsel surprises!), are used to help teach the importance of waiting; patiently, but expectantly. Regardless of age, we are reminded each week that the light breaks into the world and with each new glowing candle, the symbolic darkness of the world’s troubles recedes as the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christ take center stage, culminating in a flood of light on Christmas Eve.
However, if we always let Advent be a countdown to Christmas, we will more likely become consumed with the crazed frenzy of the holiday season, stressing out as we sit in gridlocked traffic instead of getting items crossed off our to-do lists. You see, Advent has so much more to offer! In the midst of the hustle and bustle of the season, Advent bids us to a posture of getting ready for Christ. We prepare our homes and our hearts not only for the celebration of the nativity inaugurating the twelve days of Christmas, but also for the constant way Christ breaks into our lives each and every day, and for the eventual, expected and awaited second coming of Christ in history. Congregations that allow for Advent (thereby waiting on Christmas) sing brooding hymns that voice our hope and longing for God to finally break into this world. The focus of Advent is on God’s coming, God’s arrival, God’s entrance into the world. We sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” or “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” requesting Christ’s full presence among us. In “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” we are reminded that “he comes to break oppression, to set the captives free, to take away transgression, and rule in equity.”
Advent also begins the year for Christians. Just as Jewish friends celebrate their new year at Rosh Hannah and the Chinese inaugurate the year with the Lunar New Year, the Christian church marks the start of the new liturgical year with Advent. As I’ve experienced Advent in its various manifestations over the years – as a countdown to Christmas or a time of preparation and expectation to receive and see Jesus – it is this aspect of Advent that beckons me this year. I don’t just mean opening the lectionary to Year B, either. If Advent is the Christian New Year, what things am I called to do, or do I need to do differently, starting now, for Christ and for the world, that should not wait for a New Year resolution on January 1?
I have a deep appreciation for the liturgical tradition that marks time differently than our culture does. In the past, I have been an Advent Nazi, holding off on Christmas carols and songs till at least mid-December. I also have strong opinions regarding purple (not blue) as the proper color of waiting and expectation. And as firmly as I’d like to hold onto those aspects of Advent, I am reminded that my staunch mindset can hinder me from seeing how Christ is breaking into the world while I remain firmly entrenched in tradition for tradition’s sake. As the culture continues to co-opt Christmas into a commercial holiday that begins increasingly earlier and earlier, I’m ready, this year, to begin my contemplations for making New Year resolutions now, in Advent.
And the wonderful part is that I dare to believe John Wesley invites us to do just that! Many contemporary Wesleyans are familiar with Wesley’s Covenant Renewal Service, a service instituted among the people called Methodists. Wesley’s Covenant Prayer is often used today, as it was in Wesley’s day, in January, at the start of the new calendar year. Since Wesley lived in 18th century England, a time in which Christendom was unquestioned, when persons in the early Methodist movement were expected to be members of the Anglican Church, the whole calendar, ecclesial and cultural, moved with intentional ritual, filled with reflection and meaning. Today’s postmodern, post-Christian society lacks the rhythmic cadence, the purposeful quietness that allows us to be introspective, to take pause and take stock of our selves and get our bearings. So, what’s to prevent the contemporary Christian, specifically the modern day Methodist, from using Advent (the Christian New Year) as the time to contemplate how to prepare our hearts for the continual and eventual return of Christ by using Wesley’s Covenant Renewal Service?
In Wesley’s service, participants are asked to consider five aspects of their discipleship: their everyday Christian life lived before God and the world. A modern paraphrase by George Lyons reads as follows:
– First, consider what your sins are and examine whether you can resolve to forego them all. Consider what His laws are — how holy, strict, and spiritual, and whether you can, upon deliberation, choose them all as the rule of your whole life.
– Second, compose your spirits into the most serious frame possible, suitable to a transaction of so high importance.
– Third, lay hold on the covenant of God and rely upon his promise of giving grace and strength, for only through these will you be enabled to perform your promise. Do not trust your own strength, but take hold of His strength.
– Fourth, resolve to be faithful. Having engaged your hearts, opened your mouths, and subscribed with your hands to the Lord, resolve in His strength never to go back.
– Fifth and last, being thus prepared, in the most solemn manner possible, as if the Lord were visibly present before your eyes, bow and open your hearts to the Lord.
Each prompt is not only consistent with a life of intentional Wesleyan discipleship, which is lived day in and day out throughout the year, but also imbued with themes of Advent. Waiting in expectant hope. Joyfully preparing for the coming peace. Asking God’s grace to break in and envelop the world in a conspiracy of love. How meaningful might our Christmas celebrations and the New Year resolutions we take on be if we take full advantage of Advent and live into each of its various aspects in this Christian New Year? May this Advent season be especially blessed as you celebrate it in all aspects as God leads and guides you.