Reflections on Advent, Week 1
Advent is the beginning of the Liturgical Calendar according to Christian tradition. It is generally observed by lighting candles and saying prayers the four Sundays before Christmas Day. There is a delightful anticipation of the coming of the Light, both in the Winter Solstice and in the coming of Jesus.
When I was a child, my mother brought home an Advent wreath and five candles: three purple, a pink, and a white. My father refused to light it or to recognize Advent, as it was “too religious.” He meant that it was too religious in the worst sense — full of empty ritual, rote prayers, and meaningless movements. Disappointed, my mother put away the Advent wreath and candles. Now it’s on my dining room table with five candles waiting to be lit. It took me many years to grow an appreciation for this time of year.
My father was right that ritual without meaning is dead and worthless. But ritual coupled with meaning is liturgy. Lighting candles during the darkest time of the year can infuse this time with meaning and significance. It can be used to mark time and remember who and where we are.
Philosopher and outspoken non-believer, Alain de Botton, recognizes the usefulness, for lack of a better word, of religious practice. He says in his book Religion for Atheists:
“I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illustrated manuscripts of the faiths.”
Humans have developed rituals throughout time and in every part of the earth to mark seasons and remember our cultural and religious stories. We were not just plunked down on the planet when we were born, but are a part of a continuum of humanity.
Please be sure to understand that I do not for a moment believe that we ought to cling to traditions that no longer serve us, but should be thoughtful in recognizing the ones that help us mark time and give meaning to each season. Lighting candles for hope, love, joy, peace, and the Light of the World is a simple way to bring light and meaning to an increasingly dark time of year.
Cycles of Light and Dark, Life and Death
Modern life has benefited humanity in many ways, especially in the areas of sanitation and medical care. Yet, our lives have become increasingly filled with chaos as we are no longer connected to the rhythms of the natural world, nor are most of us engaged in the cyclical liturgical calendar. For families with children in school, semesters and school breaks give us a framework to the chaos, but one without a deeper meaning or connection to nature.
As Western culture has become more secular, people have forgotten that time doesn’t just march forward into an inevitable end, but that time moves cyclically. The earth travels around the sun in a predictable pattern. The moon orbits the earth showing us her full brightness only once each month (or 28 days.)
Emmanuel, God with Us.
The Northern Hemisphere dives into darkness throughout the Advent season. Just when we feel overcome with the darkness, the Winter Solstice arrives and the days become longer. It corresponds with Christmas, a time when Christians celebrate as the moment that God, Light of the World, came and lived among us. Emmanuel means “God with Us.”
Then the light comes, the days get longer until the Spring Equinox in March. In the springtime, the crocus bubs burst from the frost ground. Christians celebrate Easter, the Resurrection of our Lord, and also the resurrection of the world shaking off her winter sleep. We enjoy Summer and Fall, then return to Advent once again.
Even if you don’t believe in God or religious doctrine, following the cycle of the liturgical year can be a useful and meaningful scaffold for your life. For those who practice Christianity, Advent can be a time of deeper devotion and a way to step back from the rampant consumerism that has taken over one of our holiest days.