Advent, the annual Christmas season, begins tomorrow. But I guess many of you already have your Christmas tree and have Christmas music in your homes. In case you have not advanced too much, consider adding Advent to your Christmas preparations. Advent is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. He also awaits his return in glory.
The Advent season begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew's Day. Say ah. You knew it, right? The day of San Andres was on November 30, so the first Sunday of Advent is December 3. There are always four Sundays in the Advent season, which concludes with Christmas. When December 24 falls on a Sunday, as it happens this year, it is still Advent. Christmas Eve does not start until night (that's why it's called "Eva"). The Christmas season begins then and lasts twelve days. While many people have thrown their trees in the gutter, the churches I have served were still celebrating Christmas and singing Christmas carols in early January. Greet people with "Blessed Advent" until the evening of December 24th. Then wish people "Merry Christmas" until January 6. See what kind of reaction they receive.
Many churches provide resources for prayer and reflection. If you have not developed a regular meditation routine, begin this Advent. I highly recommend the "Names for the Messiah" by Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann is one of the most important biblical scholars in the world. The book is based on the real names found in Isaiah 9: 6: Admirable counselor, strong God, eternal Father and Prince of peace. Each week you can spend time in prayer and study with one of these four names. He also does a great group Bible study.
Many churches have an Advent wreath with four candles to mark the progression of the season. Usually, the candles are blue or purple, which were real colors. Each Sunday begins with a brief meditation and the lighting of a candle. Many people also wear an Advent wreath at home, which is a great way to teach young people about the coming of Christ. Some churches still use a pink candle for the Third Sunday of Advent. This tradition dates back to the time when the Pope distributed roses that day. I have fun every time I see a pink candle in a Protestant crown!
Another great tradition is to have an Advent calendar. You can buy them or, better yet, make yours. Gather your children or grandchildren, print a calendar from your computer and decide what you want to put in each box. It can be a different prayer every day. Or readings of the Bible. I recently made an Advent calendar with a different mission for each day. Some of them include making a card for a soldier, leaving a gift for his mailman and bringing pet supplies to the animal shelter. Be creative Do not forget to put "go to church" in the boxes on Sunday.
Turn your Christmas tree into a Jesse tree during Advent. This is a great way to learn about the men and women who prepared the way for Christ. Open your Bible, collect some Old Testament names, get a brief biography of them from Wikipedia if you do not know them (Zerubbabel comes to mind), and then go to Google images and get clip art. Your children or grandchildren can color them and put them on the tree. It's called Jesse tree because Jesse was the father of King David. Jesus was a descendant of the great king of Israel. There's a great Jesse tree project with decorating ideas at loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/liturgical-year/advent/the-jesse-tree.
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Go to YouTube and download some Advent music. The great Advent hymns capture the spirit of the season. Listen and meditate "O come, oh come, Emmanuel", "Come, you waited for Jesus", "Listen, an exciting voice sounds", and others. Watch their stories online. Do not miss Handel's "Messiah" at St. Helena's Cathedral on December 11th. "Messiah" covers the whole gamut of Christ and salvation. The oratory begins with the lesson of Isaiah 40, which many of you will hear at the church on December 10. The part of the tenor in "Consolar" always gives me chicken beans. What a great way to celebrate Advent.
Do some shopping this Advent, but of a different kind. Did you see the "Gifts from the heart" section of Helena IR in Thanksgiving? There were a number of ways in the Helena area to help others this season. The Friendship Center. Toys for children. Shared meal Florence Crittenton Home. Pleasure Pantry. In addition to many more In place of a consumer-driven Christmas, make it one of Christ's by donating to a good cause in thanksgiving for a friend or family member. Many of us have more things than we will ever need. I have enough golf balls to sink a boat. Do not forget the bigger world. Donate to profitable charities such as Catholic Relief Service. Earned an A + rating from Charity Watch. O Lutheran World Relief (A); United Methodist Relief Committee (A +); o Episcopal Relief and Development (A) to name a few. Visit charitywatch.org to see how well aid and development agencies work. Then, choose one.
Go ahead, lift your greens, but cut them with blue or purple. Then change the decorations to red and gold before going to church on Christmas Eve. Keep your greens until Epiphany on January 6. If you have a cut tree, be sure to recycle it. The mulch will be your Christmas gift for the earth. Have a blessed Advent.
The Most Reverend Stephen Brehe is the retired dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Peter in Helena.