What is Advent?

Advent was not always understood as a countdown to Christmas. In fact, the origins of our modern-day Advent celebration may not have had much to do with December 25th at all.

A version of this piece is published online at Presbyterian Outlook.

Source: Unsplash/Max Beck

What is Advent?

As the days shorten and the nights grow colder, Christians embrace God’s promise of light. Heralding the beginning of the church calendar year, Advent begins on the Sunday between November 27th and December 3rd. [1] Deriving from the Latin word, adventus, the word means “coming,” “approach,” or “arrival.” “Advent” is also a translation of the Greek παρουσία (parousia), a word historically used in the church to signify Christ’s second coming. The church collectively waits with hope-filled anticipation for arrival, “Advent,” of Christ in our world, the One born in the flesh and whose presence is with us both now and eternally.

What is the history of the Advent wreath?

Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and other Christian traditions around the world celebrate the season of Advent with a host of annual rituals: contemplative worship, prayer, scripture study, and daily devotionals to name a few. In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Pfatteicher lifts up an enduring appeal of the Advent season: the development of meaningful traditions and customs celebrated both in worship, as well as in the home with our families. Today, the Advent wreath is one of most common symbols associated with the season.

Invented by Johann Hinrich Wichern in 1839, the Advent wreath was intended as a physical sign to help bring the spirit and expectation of the season to young boys living in a settlement house that Wichern founded in Hamburg. Evergreens and fire, two of the main materials that make up the Advent wreath, are both deeply rooted in ancient, pre-Christian symbolism associated with everlasting life. Though traditions vary today, four candles typically form a circle around the outside with one white candle in the middle, known as the Christ Candle. The four outer candles customarily represent peace, hope, joy, and love. One candle is lit for each of the four Sundays of Advent, with the Christ Candle as the final one we light on Christmas Eve.  

Why do churches decorate with purple during Advent?

Rich, deep colors are symbolic of the Advent season. As in the season of Lent, purple is one of the main liturgical hues associated with Advent. Philip Pfatteicher observes that the color purple holds different meanings for different church calendar seasons. Purple represents penitence during the Lenten season. Whereas during Advent, purple is often associated with royalty, signifying the anticipated arrival of Christ the king. Dark blue is also commonly recognized during Advent. In church history, a deep shade of blue is symbolic of hope and also of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Today, throughout the Advent season, clergy wear purple or dark blue vestments and churches are adorned in purple or dark blue paraments. In the Middle Ages, black was also a liturgical color associated with the observance of Advent.  

What are the historical origins of Advent?

Much like the mystical spirit of the season, the precise historical origins of Advent are something of a mystery. Scholars have pieced together significant evidence for annual liturgical periods of fasting and preparation in the early Christian church. Notably, these early Advent seasons didn’t culminate on December 25th but instead on January 6th, the day of Epiphany. On Epiphany, the church commemorates the revelation of the Christ-child to the world, represented by the three magi who traveled a great distance to Bethlehem to pay him homage. The early church’s observance of Epiphany included themes of the nativity, Jesus’ baptism, the miracle of the Jesus’ turning of the water into wine at Cana, and other revelations of Jesus’ identity to the world. In the West, Epiphany was marked as a feast day for the baptism and joyful reception of new catechumens, or converts, into the life of the church. In The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity, Bradshaw and Johnson point out that the connection between Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism is stronger in the Eastern church than in the West. In the Western Church, Jesus’ baptism would later come to be celebrated on a Sunday after the Sunday of Epiphany, as it is today.

Scholars believe that our modern-day Advent observance may have its origins in Spain and in Gaul. In the sixth century, the church in Rome observes a similar season of preparation for baptism. Bradshaw and Johnson note that these early church preparatory observances were of varying lengths, anywhere from three weeks to a six-week Advent in Rome. Pope Gregory I at the end of the sixth century eventually shortens the length of the Advent season to four weeks. Christmas Day, commemorated on December 25th, began as a local Roman church observance. In Rome, the four Sundays of Advent leading up to Christmas were officially set by Pope Gregory I. Though the early church’s celebration of Epiphany on January 6th was much older and celebrated more broadly, as Christmas Day gained wider acceptance in the church, the celebration of Advent became oriented not toward preparation for Epiphany but for Christmas.  

What is the theological significance of Advent?

As early church Advent celebrations were not centered upon December 25th at all, theologically Advent is oriented beyond the birthday of Jesus. Advent prepares us to celebrate Jesus Christ’s arrival, born into our broken world as a real, en-fleshed human being. However, the season of Advent also directs us toward the ultimate, eschatological hope of our eternal Savior’s second coming and the subsequent reconciliation of all things. In other words, we spiritually “get ready” for Christ to come again.

In Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip Pfatteicher writes, “The spirit of the season is expressed in the impatient cry of a sometimes desperate people, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’ (Isaiah 64:1).” In contrast to the often-ostentatious ethos of the commercial Christmas season, the Church’s Advent is a somber and soulful time of contemplation. Many of our Advent scriptures and hymns are of lament. A very familiar Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” has a haunting minor melody, in which the chorus cries out for God to save God’s people, to “ransom captive Israel.” In the final days of Advent, many churches hold “Longest Night” worship services in the evening, intentional spaces for communities to gather and lay bare the sadness and grief so often felt on these longest nights of the year.

The Church’s Advent journey does not abandon us at the threshold of despair and sorrow. Ultimately, this season orients us toward hope in a Savior who has the power to break through the anguish and sins of this world—and to ultimately redeem us all. The theme of the fourth and final Sunday in Advent is profoundly Incarnational, pointing us toward the eternal hope of God’s people in Jesus Christ and the enduring promise that our prayers for salvation have at last been answered. The Catholic Church has recited morning prayers together for hundreds and hundreds of years. One line of praise from these morning prayers (Lauds) on the final days of Advent strikes a triumphant and optimistic tone, beautifully summing up our ultimate hope of the Advent season:

“The Lord is here; go out to meet him, saying: Great is his birth, eternal his kingdom, strong God, Ruler of all, Prince of peace, alleluia!”


[1] https://www.christianity.com/wiki/holidays/what-is-advent.html

 

A Thanksgiving Benediction

A benediction for worship or to share for your Thanksgiving meal with friends and family.

May the Lord bless you and hold you close,

May the Lord fill your heart with an overwhelming sense of peace and an abundance of gratitude.

May you rest in the assurance that God loves you completely, uniquely, and beyond measure.

May you step into the fullness of God’s love for you,

May God’s love kindle within you a yearning to reach out to those who need you, whose beloved faces you can picture in your mind’s eye, as well as the strangers whom you haven’t yet met.

May you work for justice, cling to kindness, and walk humbly with Christ in your midst.

May you live for one another and for God like never before,

With open hands, minds, and hearts,

Not just during the short days of this thanksgiving season,

But for each and every day to come.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Why was Miriam punished for speaking out?

Source: Unsplash/Milan Popovic

Miriam was a skilled, female prophet who did not receive fair credit. Are we really supposed to believe that she should have kept silent and taken it in stride?

After all, nothing in this woman’s background is commensurate with timidity. In the Old Testament, Miriam is faithful and fearless, equally as courageous of a leader as she is full of compassion. She saves her baby brother Moses’ life. She stands beside him as they grow up together and he becomes the great liberator of the Hebrew people from Egypt. Miriam is one of few women prophets identified in scripture. She is a worship leader, striking up her tambourine and leading a triumphant song of praise after the Egyptians’ watery demise in the Red Sea. She is indispensable to Moses and Aaron as they tirelessly shepherd the Israelites through the desert, in the hopes that one day, at long last, they will reach the Promise Land.

Miriam is spirited, strong, and not afraid to speak up for herself. And God punishes her for it.

We enter the scene in Numbers 12. Aaron and Miriam have both leveled serious criticism at Moses. Firstly, they take issue with his marriage to a Cushite woman. Whether their concern is because his new wife is not an Israelite or for another reason, the text is unclear. Then they pose a second issue: “Has the Lord only spoken through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”

The editor’s heading in my Bible clearly presumes Miriam and Aaron’s intentions behind questioning their leader: “Aaron and Miriam Jealous of Moses.”Though even if jealousy contributed, wasn’t their critique truthful? Wasn’t it, in fact, true that Aaron and Miriam were called to lead alongside Moses?

Why, even in the previous chapter of Numbers, Moses himself rebukes Joshua for attempting to stop others from exercising leadership! He demands, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Here Moses seems rather favorable of the team approach!

Whereas God, on the other hand, was very unhappy with Miriam and Aaron’s line of questioning. He calls them forth and harshly rebukes them, reminding them of Moses’ favored status and that other prophets only speak to God indirectly through visions and dreams. “Not so with my servant Moses…,” says God, “with him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.” Therefore, God admonishes that they should not have spoken against Moses!

What comes next truly baffles me. Both Aaron and Miriam criticize Moses, but only Miriam is penalized! At God’s hand, she is stricken with leprosy. Furthermore, she is forced to quarantine outside of their camp for seven days. Of Miriam’s predicament, pastor and professor Lynn Japinga writes, “This ‘time-out’ may seem innocuous, but imagine a woman living alone outside the camp without shelter or protection from predators or the elements.” I suppose it is a small comfort that the Israelites wait for Miriam’s isolation period to end. Miriam is welcomed back into the camp and continues along with her people on their journey. Picking up right where she left off, she remains their leader. Nevertheless, as Japinga notes, during Miriam’s seven days of quarantine, it is unclear as to whether she even had access to food or water!

Honestly, this is a cringeworthy passage to read through in its entirety. From Moses’ pitiful begging, “Oh God, please heal her!” To Aaron’s disquieting appeal that she would not be, “like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother’s womb.” How as a person of faith—as a woman of faith—am I supposed with reconcile with the divine punishment for Miriam’s choice to speak? Even if her intentions were less than noble, still Aaron ostensibly would share the blame—and despite his guilt-wracked conscience, he walks away without a blemish!

In her study on this biblical story, Japinga poses a question for reflection to her readers: “Had you been Miriam, what would you have said to God when you were struck with leprosy?” Besides a few choice expletives, my initial response to God would have been disbelief. Had I been Miriam, I would have wondered why I was being punished for speaking out and for holding those in power to a high standard. Moses may be called to a high prophetic station, but is he not also a flawed and finite human being, prone to mistakes and in need of accountability, just like everyone else?

To play the devil’s advocate, one could well argue that Miriam and Aaron mishandled their approach. They publicly questioned their leader in front of others rather than privately approach Moses. Even if the content of their criticism was correct, their means to that end was rash and misguided. Did they honestly think that God wouldn’t overhear them?

Of course, discerning how and when to speak up is always complicated. Even if Miriam was in the right, clearly she was part of a system that wasn’t ready for change. Sadly, as a result, she was punished and put in her place. But isn’t it possible that incremental changes happened behind the scenes? Perhaps Miriam’s voice helped pave the way for other spiritual leaders to step up—and other female prophets to be called in later generations. At the very least, Moses and Aaron must have been inwardly changed after witnessing Miriam’s courage to speak and her grace in accepting the consequences for her actions.

There have been plenty of points in my life when I’ve failed to speak up against wrongdoing, or to advocate for myself or for others—regarding small things but also big things as well. Then, there have been times when I’ve raised concerns about something I thought was wrong and suffered the consequences. Whether those consequences were warranted or not, I’ve certainly indulged in that torturous exercise of replaying scenarios over and over in my head, wondering what I might have done or said differently, wondering whether my actions had, in the end, made any difference at all. All in all, I think I have a pretty good idea what Miriam’s inner dialogue was for those seven long, lonely days quarantined outside of camp…

As a female pastor, I grieve with Miriam. Her is a story that shows how women leaders throughout history have been silenced. Even after spending considerable time with this story, I still don’t understand why she was punished for speaking out. Regardless, I celebrate her courage and strength as an example to model. Even if female leaders speak up today and get shut down, maybe the door cracks open a little wider for tomorrow’s possibilities. Incremental changes add up. One voice makes space for other voices. We can lean on the saints who have come before us to show us how to speak up for ourselves and others—and also to learn how the Church can do better at listening to stories of exclusion.

Miriam’s story gives me hope. She reminds me how far the Church has come already.   

Choosing our seasons

Click here to read the published version of this piece at the Presbyterian Outlook.

Source: Unsplash/Mario Dobelmann

The opening line of Ecclesiastes 3 is a familiar one: “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven…”

Is this verse comforting? I think most folks would say so. It’s nice to be reminded that life follows a pattern. Seasons come and go. Challenging periods give way to times of ease. Life follows a natural rhythm that ebbs and flows between sorrow and celebration. Gratitude and respite come with the passage of time, for whatever phase of life in which we currently find ourselves assuredly will not last forever.  

But recently, I’ve had to stop myself from reading the words of Ecclesiastes 3 through a fatalistic lens. I wonder if the seasons of our lives are really quite so fixed? Does time press us relentlessly from one life stage to the next as though we were on a conveyor belt, or do we have a bit more agency than that? I believe it’s true that God created a kind of world with structure and order that provides our lives with predictability, purpose, and direction. There are known factors that mark the passage of time in my own life. For example, it’s currently the heat of the summer in mid-July. The year is 2022. I’m 32 years old.

In her commentary on Ecclesiastes 3, Amy Plantinga Pauw writes, “Knowing ‘what time it is’ in one’s life is a central part of wisdom’s discernment.” Though I’m wondering to what extent this is knowledge I must passively accept, like spotting a clock on the wall and acknowledging, “Oh, it’s 3:00 p.m.” Or, alternatively, is identifying “what time it is” for me something that I can also actively determine and choose?

Maybe it’s true that God creates a world with ordered structure. Though maybe it’s just as truethat as an intelligent agent, I can provide form and shape to the seasons that guide my limited time on this earth. Perhaps to some extent, I actually get to choose the seasons of my life. Maybe I can even go so far as to namemy own seasons for myself! “A time to mourn and a time to dance?” so says Ecclesiastes. Maybe my life right now calls for a season of both mourning and dancing at the same time!

As someone who is finishing up a divorce, I’m learning that the seasons of my life are not, in fact, so rigidly predetermined. At any point, yes, you can hop off the conveyor belt! You can choose to reorient yourself in a new direction, set a different course for your life, and step into a brand-new season, a whole new phase otherwise uncharted.

As a newly-divorced person, I know what I’ve left behind. I walked away from a five-year-marriage. For the moment, I’ve left behind the traditional roadmap for homeownership and 2.5 kids. Those life benchmarks were neatly laid out for me consecutively one after the other, if I had chosen to stay on that particular path. Now instead, I’m turning to a brand new chapter in my life. Now owning a home and parenthood are no longer imminently on the horizon. Something else, yet to be determined, is coming up next for me now.  

Ecclesiastes 3:6 echoes in my head: “A time to seek and a time to lose…” I think these words resonate well with the season of divorce. For me, my time to lose has become synonymous with my time to seek. What I’m stepping into now is a whole new season as a newly-single, older, and more mature woman. If a central piece of my wisdom discernment is to identify what time it is in my own life, then that’s the main question for my current process of self-discovery: What season of life am I currently in? And to what extent do I get to decide what it is and what it looks like?

Currently, one of my favorite podcasts is The Real Question with Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan. In each episode, Casper and Vanessa bring their own expertise and usually at least one entertaining pop culture insight to addressing life’s big questions. I love the playful spirit of enthusiastic curiosity Vanessa and Casper bring to their conversations. They often make me think about something I’ve been contemplating from a very different perspective.

For example, in one episode, Casper ter Kuile wrestles with the question of what the term “middle age” means for him. Like me, his life has also taken a less traditional trajectory, and he considers how this next stage of life for him can be marked by fullness rather than absence (e.g. absence of kids, absence of homeownership, etc.) In the episode, Casper ponders not just what he wants to do in this next stage of his life but who he hopes he will be.

Casper’s framing of the question as who he wants to “be” made a lightbulb flicker on in my mind. Suddenly determining what season of life I’m in feels far less to do with extrinsic factors outside of my control. When I look at Ecclesiastes 3, I read it now through a different lens. “A time to mourn and a time to dance” are states of being. Certainly, weeping and laughter are natural responses to external events, but I also can choose my responses accordingly. Times for weeping and for laughter don’t have to be thrust upon me without my willing consent. If I want to fall apart, I can fall apart. My grief is mine. My joy is also mine. No one can dictate what it looks like, or how long it should last.

In what season of life am I currently living? For me, this is predominantly a season of resilience, optimism, and the delight of self-discovery. This is a moment of incredible liberation, of “being” anew. And when I look forward into the future, I think about the words that I want to define the next few years of my life. I think of words like “stable,” “steady”, and “dependable.” With God’s help, I hope to be the kind of person that embodies a steadiness and dependability in this new unfolding phase of my life. I also hope to be able to share my experiences so that others might learn from my personal journey and feel seen and validated by what I’ve gone through.

For whatever season of life you are facing, step forward in hope. You can choose who you want to be in each and every one.  

A prayer for milestones

A prayer for the transitions of life
Source: Unsplash/Adrien Olichon

Gracious God,

In this lifetime, we face a great many milestones. Some happy. Some sad. Many both at once.

Help us to navigate the fullness of both our joys and our sorrows for the many transitions we undergo in our lives, especially when the emotional weight of it all at times feels too overwhelming to name and too heavy to carry.

In this season of graduations, we celebrate the joy of new beginnings as well as grieve the inevitable arrival of endings. For both good endings and bad, may we show grace to ourselves and to others.

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Small but steady witness: Big lessons from little churches (From May 9, 2022 Presbyterian Outlook Magazine)

IT WAS A SUMMER SUNDAY MORNING IN 2020 AND THE VERY LAST TIME I WOULD PRESIDE OVER THE LORD’S TABLE IN MY SMALL CONGREGATION.

No one besides me had entered our sanctuary for months, and it showed. I unlocked the wooden double doors bearing my handwritten sign that read: “Sanctuary Closed Due to Pandemic. Worship With Us Online.”Hot, stagnant air draped over me once I stepped inside the modest, single-room country church. As I walked up the center aisle, the wooden floors creaked in surprise at my unexpected feet. Pale morning sunlight illumined the chalky dust coating each unoccupied pew.

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” ‘Ode to Joy’ and the harrowing of hell” Holy Saturday post for Presbyterian Outlook

In 1786, Friedrich Schiller published his best-known work, a poem entitled “An die Freude,” known in English as “Ode to Joy.” Schiller’s poem was an instant hit. In fact, it was such a success that it soon sparked the imagination of another famous German artist. Shortly after its composition, Ludwig van Beethoven aspired to set the text of “Ode to Joy” to music.

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“The Blank Canvas of Winter” post from Presbyterian Outlook

I love waking up early on a quiet winter morning to a fresh snowfall. I am perennially amazed when overnight everything is instantly transformed under a dusting of sparkling white. The trees sigh and relax under a weighted blanket of snow and ice. The whole world outside your window softens. Even the sky turns pale. Everything seems to melt together, forming a tranquil blank canvas. It is as though an invisible hand has artfully prepared for us a clean slate of frost and snow, one inviting intrepid footsteps and unabashed possibilities.

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“Beauty in Virtual Worship” post from Presbyterian Outlook

Like many others, my church pivoted to virtual-only worship and programming for much of January. It was a difficult decision, but one that our pastoral and leadership team felt was necessary considering rising COVID cases. As a result, our worship attendees found themselves back at home in their respective living rooms on Sunday mornings, eyes affixed to their devices, and tuning in live with us from afar. Déjà vu. Reluctant as we were, our church family settled back into this all-too-familiar Sunday morning rhythm. So, I found myself asking, “What have I learned about virtual worship after all this time? What is particularly unique about virtual worship? Appealing? Perhaps even … beautiful?

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