This year, as I’ve attempted to keep Advent and—of course—prowled social media, I’ve noticed some interesting practices here and there. So I decided it was time for an Advent round-up! This is not meant to be a definitive compilation, just some neat things I’ve found. Some are historical, some new, some strange, and others just kind of fun. Maybe there’s something for you.
So here you go—10 Advent Practices for 2015!
1. Fast. Advent began as a season of preparation for the baptism of Christian converts, which took place on Epiphany. Consequently, Advent included fasting for much of the Middle Ages (and still does in some churches today). This may seem difficult given the season’s culinary excesses. But there is more than one way to fast. Check out this great post on The Nativity Fast to see how “fasting is not just about food.”
2. Look for the four comings of Christ. Instead of using the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love when lighting your Advent wreath, reflect each week on one of the four—yes, four—comings of Christ as taught by medieval theologians. I did some research on this and was surprised by the rich and complex tradition of Christ’s comings. See my recent reflection on this topic.
3. Read Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. I admit that this is a strange practice, and it’s a highly personal one. Almost every year, I read Willis’s time-travel thriller during the Advent season. Why? Set in December in medieval England (and 21st-century Oxford), it offers a totally unsentimental look at the kind of love and hope that pierce the darkest of human days. For more, see my review of Doomsday Book from this summer.
4. Celebrate the Stations of the Birth. Led by Emily Stone, the women of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC began a unique practice this year— celebrating the Stations of Christ’s birth as an Advent parallel to the Stations of the Cross. Readings, poetry, and visual aids took participants through stages in Mary’s journey, including her response to the angel, her visit to Elizabeth, and Jesus’ birth. Each station helped the women prepare for what Christ is birthing in their own life. Doesn’t this sound like a neat tradition?
5. Wait. The Feast of the Nativity doesn’t begin until December 25. The four weeks preceding are a time of preparation. How can we spend some time this Advent preparing instead of partying? We may not be able to do much about office parties or Christmas music blaring in public. But how about in our homes? Perhaps we don’t put up the tree until Christmas Eve. Or we sing songs of preparation instead of Christmas carols. Worried you won’t get enough holiday cheer? Remember that the Twelve Days of Christmas follow Advent. They are a liturgical season of feasting unto themselves.
6. Read a poem a day. My Twitter friend Marguerite is having an all-poetry Advent (check the hashtag #poetryonlyAdvent on Twitter). She writes, “All my ‘recreational’ reading is going to be poetry. This will mean much more intense, careful reading.” Some of her favorites are Christian Wiman’s “Every Riven Thing” and John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Reading something completely different can slow us down and help us to pay attention.
8. Do your shopping before Advent. This tip comes, again, from Marguerite. I imagine a whole new countdown—just 14 shopping days until Advent! By getting this task out of the way early, we can spend time preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ.
9. Ban violence. This is another medieval tradition, one I discovered on Medievalists.net. In the 11th century, a series of decrees called the Truce of God forbade violence (such as feuding, war, personal revenge, and military activities) during Advent. In 1063, the Bishop of Terouanne wrote,”You shall also keep this peace every day of the week from the beginning of Advent to the octave of Epiphany.” What if we banned violence—arguing, passive-aggressive behavior, baiting, and so on—in our own hearts and homes? What if we kept the peace this Advent?
10. Mix up your music. Kate is changing her listening habits this Advent: “No radio, more silence and classical music. Deeper listening.” What might a little silence and more careful listening do for us this time of year?
And a bonus “practice”–
11. Embrace the chaos. Here the truth comes out. How many Advent practices have I actually kept this year? Not many. The tree went up the Saturday after Thanksgiving (I blame the kids). I’ve picked fights (I blame the stress). I haven’t fasted (I blame . . . you get the point).
I’m grateful to my friend Phil Steer for reminding me that keeping Advent is worthy but not mandatory:
Phil links to Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. I fear for you” (Gal. 4:10-11).
I don’t know if I’m trying to earn God’s favor, but I do know that sometimes I can’t seem to do Advent. I like the practices I rounded up above and genuinely think they (or others) can help us prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. At the same time, I realize that I can’t save the season—or myself. This awareness is perhaps my greatest practice. It’s why I need Jesus to come this and every year.
How about you? How are you keeping—or embracing the grace of not keeping—Advent?