Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Advent: Anticipation or Penance?

A friend of mine emailed me this morning, not very happy with the description of the penitential nature of Advent in an email I had sent her. She was taught (as I was) that Advent was a time of anticipating and waiting, not of penance. She's not so sure that she likes turning this happy season into a more dour one. Here are some of my thoughts in response to her:

Advent is not a dour, "I'm so sinful" penitential season like Lent is. It is a more joyful, penitential season. (Sounds oxymoronic, I know). But, for me, Advent is more of a fasting to get ready for the feast.

Last year was the first year I decided to seriously consider this penitential aspect of Advent. I decided to give up chocolate for Advent and see how that affected me, and my celebration of the season. There were three things that I noticed. First, I didn't gain my usual holiday 5 pounds. Second, it was a lot easier to give something up for the 3 1/2 weeks of Advent than the 6 weeks of Lent. And, third, I found that by giving something up, Jesus was brought to mind more often. Every time I reached for a cookie or piece of candy, I was reminded of my fast, and it was an opportunity to remember that Advent is a time to prepare to greet our Savior, not a time to shop until I drop.

And that's really what it's about. Preparing for our Savior's arrival. For me, that included (and will include this year) some penitential practice, because I am so far from where I should be to greet the Lord. But this year, I am focusing more on growing spiritually rather than "punishing" myself for my "sinfulness." So, I am also reading Matthew this Advent, one chapter a day, and trying to focus on Jesus' teachings.

Last year, our family started doing a short (about 5 min) prayer service with the Advent wreath every night. We'll do that again this year, and we are adding in a short Jesse Tree meditation to that. But, for the kids, I want this season to be one of joy, anticipation, and family traditions. Some of those traditions are secular, and some are religious... and I think that balance is what I am going for. I think it's ok to have Santa alongside St Nick, Jesus alongside Rudolph. I love the 1960s claymation Christmas shows, and we will watch all of them. We will decorate the house this coming weekend. We will start listening to Christmas music on Friday or Saturday, and listen to practically nothing else until January.

For me, Christmas is about family. It started with a family... the humblest of all... and it continues with families, year after year, gathering together to remember that first night, that tiny family, in that cold stable in Bethlehem, and what it means for all of us throughout time and space.

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