Thanks to my mother, I learned to love Advent liturgy as a child. When I was seven years old, on the first Sunday of Advent, my mom went to the attic and brought down the Advent box. The box contained a metal wreath and some church pamphlets, suggesting readings and prayers for the lighting of Advent candles. Presenting me with the box and a brand new set of candles, my mother invited me to plan the family’s evening wreath lighting.
The assignment felt like a weighty treasure. I loved the brief, still Advent moments; the family gathering in an ever-increasing circle of light every Sunday night for four weeks. Advent wasn’t Advent in our house without the lighting of the wreath. Old enough now to read well, this act of liturgical devotion lay in my hands.
Preparing took most of Sunday afternoon: setting up the wreath in the middle of the dining room table; reading the pamphlet suggestions and choosing prayers; sorting out the various prophets and Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles that would be our Scripture for the night. Choices made, I took my pencil and created a worship leaflet on notebook paper, assigning every family member a part.
And then I waited: waited for nightfall; waited for the family; waited to turn out the lights; waited for the strike of a match.
By the flicker of candlelight, we read the ancient, prophetic words and sang some of the oldest prayers the church knows:
“O come, O come Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.”
Growing older, my love for Advent only deepens. The appearance of the wreath; the lighting of the candles; creates a space for my longing; it invites us to experience the vulnerability of our ache for God. Yearning arises; our hearts straining, straining, toward God’s promise of renewal and redemption. The tiny flames nourishing hope in the one who is coming. Advent challenges us to name—as individuals, as families, as a people—our own lonely exile; to acknowledge our sad divisions; to admit that we cannot, we cannot save ourselves. (Hymn text)
Advent journeying moves us beyond the beauty of prophetic poetry to embrace the prophetic witness: our God is a God of fidelity; our God is a God of integrity. We wait for the revealing of God in flesh. And God keeps God’s promises. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Between the hype of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the church struggles to hold open Advent space. In place of pre-Christmas frenzy, Advent asks for silence, stillness, and a receptive softening of our hearts.
What would it ask of us to hold open a space to prepare for the coming of God? To refrain, for example, from every electronic device for the four Sundays of Advent; to be still and to pray: “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” And then to wait and see where the journey leads us.
As unwelcome as many find it, the church perseveres in singing “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” before we sing “Joy to the World.” For our world is not as it should be: we hunger after the life-altering, hopeful, cosmic action of the one who comes.
Three hundred child soldiers carry handguns, made by us. They are too small to carry larger guns. Two and a half million children die for lack of a simple vaccine. One hundred thirty million children, particularly girls, receive almost no education. “Joy to the world?” I think not. Not yet. “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” (Campbell)
Income disparity widens. We enjoy our $4 latte, while those needing food assistance receive $1.50 to feed themselves for an entire day. Food pantries run out of food with greater regularity while at Whole Foods, a single tab tops $1,000 in imported wines and delicacies. (Illustration idea from Neumark)
Swords and spears abound; plowshares and pruning hooks prove harder to come by. Lions and lambs live at odds with one another. And we do not see crocuses blooming in the desert.
The Advent Church cries out with all the courage and hope we can muster. “Come, Lord Jesus. Come and save us. Come and save us. Come and save us!”
A young woman I knew in a previous church called me. Just home from her first semester at Bucknell, Maddie met up with about a dozen of her high school youth group friends. They compared notes from the first semester of freshman year at their respective colleges. The conversation turned to their shared years in the church youth program and their memories of Advent.
“We remember,” Maddie said, “that you always invited us to your house for dinner before Christmas. And then you sat on the floor and rolled out the felt road to Bethlehem and told us the Godly Play story of Advent waiting. It was always so peaceful; so full of hope. I felt prepared somehow for Christmas.”
“I haven’t felt that near to God since I left for college. Nobody else has either. So we were wondering. Can we come to dinner? And will you tell us the story?” I could hear the longing in her voice; the yearning for the nearness of God.
Turns out about fifteen college freshmen and their friends came to dinner. Afterwards, we dimmed the lights, sat down in a circle on the floor. I rolled out the felt road to Bethlehem, and with candles and nativity figures, I began to tell them the story.
“This is the season of Advent; the time we get ready to celebrate the mystery of Christmas; the time when we are all on the way to Bethlehem. But who will show us the way?” (Berryman and Stewart)
Figure by figure, candle by candle, week by week, the story unfolds. The prophets show us the way with their promise of light shining with eternal strength in the darkness. The holy family show us the way; Mary pregnant, the very bearer of God; Joseph, steadfast beside her. The shepherds, fearful, overcome; and then filled with good news—the joy of the Savior, come at last. The magi journeying; following a surprising star; a star like any other; bearing gifts for a sovereign.
Everyone traveling, traveling; following a longing they cannot ignore; a yearning only the love of God will ever satisfy. Advent beckons us to long for the more profound joy; to yearn for the newness and the nearness of God. Come, O come, Emmanuel.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
AliveNow, November/December 2002; The Upper Room, “Editor’s Note” and “How to Wait,” Melissa Tidwell.
Circuit Rider, “An Advent Reflection: Dare We Talk of Hope?” Will D. Campbell, November/December 2001.
Christian Century, “Advent,” Heidi Neumark, December 5, 2001.
The Hymnal 1982, hymn text “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” Latin, 9th Century.
Young Children and the Worshipping Community, Jerome Berryman and Sonja Stewart, Westminster/John Knox, 1989.