Monday, December 3, 2012
Hoping for Advent
My Texas church welcomed Advent in a beautifully Baptist sort of way: on the first Sunday of Advent we would have a potluck lunch, followed by Advent-wreath making in the fellowship hall. Cutting and arranging juniper branches with friends became a time of hope and reflection even during the most busy doctoral semesters. Sunday morning worship would include a time of lighting and discussing a candle from the church's large wreath, and many years the sermons during Advent would follow the lectionary texts used by our high-church kindred.
Celebrated in this way, Advent slowed the season down for me, encouraged me to study church history, turned my eyes to familiar passages of Scripture, and prepared my heart for Christmas.
The church I've been attending in Alabama has many virtues--hospitality, generosity, concern for the poor, active missions efforts--but overall it shows about as much awareness of church history as a shopping mall. Consequently, I've been pondering how to keep the season without the support of a local congregation.
When some late (but all the more serendipitous) graduation money came to me in the mail last month, I decided that I would buy a beautiful Advent wreath. I found one from Abbey Press, which is housed at the beautiful archabbey of St. Meinrad in southern Indiana. It arrived the week of Thanksgiving, and on Saturday I covered my turntable with a green cloth, placed the wreath there, and filled it with holly from the bush that grows outside my office.
Sunday morning I followed the morning readings from Common Prayer, but I set aside the last hour of my day to welcome the first Sunday of Advent. I made myself a little order of service (which you can read here), turned down the lights, and read through the daily reading from Watch for the Light, then Isaiah 9, then the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. I asked God to teach me how to keep my lamp trimmed and burning, how to make sure my oil was ready for the Lord's coming.
Finally, I stood before my wreath and sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" while I lit the first candle, the candle representing hope. For an instant, I felt terribly alone in my private Advent hour: pitiful, even, with my quavering voice and makeshift liturgy. I missed the friends whose voices have caroled that with me for the last six years.
Strange to say, that loneliness washed over me like a wave, passing quickly and leaving me clean: so clean, swept free from distractions or uncertainties. Advent, I realized, belongs to those "who mourn in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear." I do not mean that I feel in exile in Alabama -- hardly so. However, that salt tang of that sorrow reminded me that my hope as a Christian should answer creation's exile, and that this season should revive my dedication to impossible prayers: prayers that a beloved skeptic would return to the faith, prayers for all the lonely adults in our hyper-individualized culture, prayers for reconciliation among denominations, prayers for revival in North Korea and jubilee in Iran.
I let the candle burn for nearly an hour. With the house lights off, I sat in my favorite chair and watched the candle shine. Its light sang my own words back to me: "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel...."