A longer Advent helps some Christians prepare for more than Christmas
When he was a college campus chaplain in the Boston area, the Rev. Cameron Partridge saw how stressed his students were in the weeks leading up to Christmas break.
"You know, you've got the end of the semester," says Partridge. "You've got finals. Preparation to leave for home. So Advent barely got to be observed."
Advent is a season observed in many Christian traditions, typically during the four weeks leading up to Christmas. But Partridge decided to begin Advent a few weeks early, for seven weeks total.
The change, he says, gave students "an opportunity to actually really be present together and to observe it together, which could be grounding in a time of great intensity."
It's a grounding that Partridge brought with him when he came to lead St. Aidan's Episcopal Church in San Francisco seven years ago.
On the second Sunday of November this year, the Episcopal priest began his sermon by saying, "Good morning, St. Aidan's, and welcome to Advent."
He went on to preach about the meaning of the season, saying it "locates us within the coming of the divine reign — the dream of God."
Partridge says that this Advent theme of divine reign — rather than a simple prelude to Christmas — is more poignant this year, given the conflict in the Holy Land.
"We can't pretend that everything is fine," he says. "There is tumult in the world, and it is real and it is hard and it is deeply affecting people."
And what people are looking for, Partridge says, is the reassurance that in Advent, the church resists violence and earthly powers.
Biblical readings during Advent focus on justice and peace
The current move to begin marking the season earlier began in 2005, when the Rev. William Petersen got together a group of clergy, professors and church musicians at the North American Academy of Liturgy. They formed something that came to be called the Advent Project.
Petersen's interest in the project arose from analyzing the biblical texts appointed for the seven weeks leading up to Christmas in the Revised Common Lectionary, which many denominations use to guide their Sunday morning readings.
"The real emphasis of this season is on the pursuit of justice and peace," says Petersen. "In the world we live in right now, you can't get more relevant than that."
Petersen is the retired dean of the Episcopal seminary Bexley Hall and the author of the book What Are We Waiting For?: Re-Imaging Advent for Time to Come.
He argues that expanding Advent beyond anticipation of Jesus in the manger to embrace the hope for a just and peaceful world described by the Hebrew prophets is apparent in those lectionary texts.
"Advent has an integrity of its own," Petersen says. "It's not just a ramp-up to Christmas or countdown."
Advent itself, he says, is countercultural.
The idea that Advent is about more than Christmas, of course, isn't in keeping with more popular, commercial thinking about the season, which usually involves little more than cardboard calendars with doors that hide chocolates, Legos or even tiny bottles of whiskey behind them.
Petersen says that the biblical readings can be read as prophesying the coming of Jesus, but that they are also about a different world altogether — one in which lions and lambs lie down together and in which the lowly are lifted up.
Advent for Christians, Petersen believes, is as much about hope for the Second Coming of Jesus — sometimes called the Second Advent — that will usher in the reign of God as much as it is about commemorating the first coming of God in the person of Jesus in first-century Palestine.
Expanding Advent extends to language about God
Among the practices of an expanded Advent are the use of something called the Great O Antiphons. These are liturgical prayers more traditionally sung in the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve and that address Jesus through a variety of metaphors: wisdom, lord, root, key, dawn, king and god-with-us.
One way to observe expanded Advent is for each Sunday of the seven weeks to focus on one of the O Antiphons images, which expands God-talk beyond the exclusively masculine imagery that many contemporary people of faith find troubling.
"We get all these other images of God," says the Rev. Suzanne Wenonah Duchesne, "which are very different from God on a throne."
Duchesne, a Methodist minister who teaches worship and preaching at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, says this expanded vocabulary is more imaginative, humble and loving.
And she has found congregations receptive to that change.
"I had a little church in West Philadelphia where I did what I termed a subversive Advent," Duchesne says, "where I didn't tell them what I was doing."
Rather than announce she was starting the season a few weeks early, she simply began to preach on Advent themes and asked the church musicians to hold back on Christmas music until closer to Dec. 25.
Using the regularly appointed biblical texts, she recalls preaching on "what the reign of God could be and what it could look like in our lives."
It's a world Duchesne describes as one of justice, care and compassion.
Advent liturgies form Christians for community
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago is also ushering in the Advent theme of God's hope for the world early this year.
That theme is evident as Pastor Michelle Sevig leads worship, wearing the blue liturgical vestments associated with the season. It's also evident in the language of her opening prayer:
"O God of justice and love, you illuminate our way through life with the words of your son. Give us the light we need. And awaken us to the needs of others. Through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen."
The congregation began singing traditional Advent hymns early as well. Pastor Craig Mueller says that Scripture, song and prayer shape this community at Holy Trinity and that spending more time in Advent gives his flock more space to think about the world as it is and imagine the world as it could be.
"It's too bad that many people equate Christianity with doctrines and beliefs," he says, "rather than what ritual could do to form us with the passages of time."
Ultimately, Mueller says, these practices teach Christians what it means to be human.
"I don't know if there are other ways that quite do that in the same way as ritual does — and ritual in community," he says.
It's all in service of helping his congregation know "that we're part of something bigger than ourselves," Mueller says. "It draws us into community."
Living this Advent liturgy forms Christians to persevere through the sorrow of violence and rejoice in the hope for peace, says Cameron Partridge, at St. Aidan's in San Francisco. It brings together people across difference in a war-ravaged world that's not yet the one for which God longs.
"In its dwelling in the already and the not-yet," says Partridge, "Advent can ground and strengthen us in all of that uncertainty and help give us — from out of that grounding — an ability to connect."
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