It is Advent once again. And “what we must do in all earnestness,” writes Hans urs von Balthasar in his Advent sermon “The Future has Already Come,” “is to examine things with regard to their eternal content and eternal promise or, even better, allow ourselves to be addressed by the eternal promise that is embodied in them.”
I was 18 years old the year my family lit the first candle on our very first Advent wreath. My pastor father had changed denominations that August and moved our family from the Kansas prairie to a suburb on the outskirts of Colorado Springs.
Even though Dad had earned a Master’s in religion from Kansas University, driving across the state almost every week for years to do it, he still regretted not earning a seminary degree, and our denominational change had provided him the chance to begin.
One of the life-changers of that first year in Colorado was learning about the liturgical year. My father came from a low-church fundamentalist denomination, and when his studies led him deep into the riches of Christian tradition, his fascination knew no bounds.
“I’ve been robbed,” he said, and he went about making up for it.
On the first Sunday of Advent that year, the families who attended church remained after the service for a meal and a time of wreath making. By the time I came home from my first semester away at college, three of the candles on the wreath my family had made were already in use, and my father’s explanation of Advent’s call to prepare our hearts for Christmas lifted my heart in wonder as he read from a little booklet and we sang “Come Thou, Long-Expected Jesus” together.
When my husband and I started a family of our own a few years later, I shared what little I knew about Advent with him, and with our boys we began a December dinnertime ritual of lighting our own Advent wreath, reading the Advent scriptures and singing “O Come O Come, Emanuel,” one verse for each of Advent’s weeks.
Today, with our children grown and gone, our wreath is still placed on the dining room table, and a quieter Advent invites me to contemplate the coming of the Savior. This is always good news, and it calls for a gradual making ready. It’s a perpetual preparation for peace.
Most Advents I return to the beauty of Handel’s Messiah. I take from the shelves Handel’s Messiah: A Devotional Commentary, a book long out of print (though Amazon still offers used copies). It’s a book my mother came to love in her first Advent seasons and passed along to me. Dr. Joseph McCabe begins gently:
With Christmas as its climax, Advent is the season for great rejoicing in human loves, and the glad welcome of the One who binds us to Himself in the love of God.
“He who came at Advent knew the Scriptures,” McCabe notes. “This Messiah text was familiar to him, beginning with boyhood days in Nazareth.”
This year, alongside McCabe’s book, I’ll be reading Hallelujah: A Journey through Advent with Handel’s Messiah, a simple collection of ecumenical reflections on the scriptures Handel used in creating the world’s best-loved oratorio.
- to live in hope rather than despair.
- to “seek peace and pursue it.”
- to befriend the poor and lonely living close to me.
- to revel in the recovery of innocence when I make my Advent confession.
- to take daily delight in small wonders.
Advent’s small wonders are many: Children. Starlight. Snowflakes. A stranger’s smile.
The message of mangers not yet filled.
The eternal Promise embodied in them all.
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