One of the undertones of our Advent focus is the shift in the cultic practices of ancient Yahweh worshipers from an emphasis on God's temple abode to an emphasis of God's abode in our homes and in our hearts--wherever a temple-strong faith was exhibited, even in a temple-less world. So we take a piece of our worship home with us this season.
No worries, if you weren't able to stay Sunday afternoon for the meal and decorating. All you need in order to celebrate Advent in your own home is four candles and a bible. Add a fifth candle, as well, to light on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. You need four themes to guide your scripture reading and prayer. While I'm sure there are extra Advent bookets at church, which contain all this information, here are the traditional Advent themes:
- First Sunday in Advent. Candle #1, purple. This week reflects upon the world as we know it now, awaiting the return of its savior, and the world before Jesus. Similar to our current world, people in the pre-Jesus world awaited a cosmic act of God. And there was little by way of hinting at one.
- Second Sunday of Advent. Candle #2, purple. This week leaves our current context and focuses only on the world where rumblings of God's imminent action were encrypted in the hearts of prophets. In other words, there were still no visible signs to speak of. But the word of God was everflowing in the hearts of many.
- Third Sunday of Advent. Candle #3, pink. This week moves us closer to the divine event. And we do get a visible sign that things are about to change when we see John the Baptist. The word of God is pouring out of the mouth of this unusual Levite. Other weeks are purple to symbolize diciplined penance. Since we get a huge relief in our efforts to be resolute in faith (surety in things not seen) when we see a visible phenomenon like John the Baptist, we change color to match the sentiment.
- Fourth Sunday of Advent. Candle #4, purple. This is the final Sunday of Advent. We get a most memorable sign. The problem is with the impossibility of this one. All we've waited and watched for God to do will make its way to the nine-month holding place of a young woman's womb, just like any other ordinary human being. Notice how the real miracle escapes concern over whether or not Mary engaged in intercourse before her betrothal to Joseph. It was such a small matter to the writers of the Christian scriptures that only two of them even mention it, and neither of their accounts agree in the family tree nor the narrative. Paul, the earliest and most prolific writer of the NT, seems to have never heard the birth story. Nor does our earliest Post-Pauline Gospel, Mark, from which the two that do mention the birth story certainly copied. And then there's the Gospel of John. Definitely later on the scene--which means it would most likely contain most of the popular theologies and stories behind the evolving faith in volatile, post-second-temple times (unless they were not known or blatantly rejected)--this Gospel foregoes talk of Jesus' earthly birth altogether and contains a preface focusing on Jesus as the incarnation of the "logos" of God (a cosmic birth story, of sorts). Again, the real miracle is that the promised act and fulfillment of God's cosmic, apocalyptic rending of the heavens to rescue his covenant people is now alive like one of us, vulnerable to all that can go wrong in utero in the human experience. All of our writers of NT Gospels agree on that point. Whatever God is doing now is going to look embarrassingly human. This faith is hard and will come with many consequences. So we remember the discipline. We light a purple candle and realize this is going to be a different kind of journey.
Preparing our hearts and recognizing our own houses as legitimate locales of worship is the overall spirit of Advent. It's a practicing our fortitude of faith through an excercise of patience. Try it. And be not discouraged if you fail in our culture that needs rush us to Christmas for year-end fiscal objectives. Just light a candle once a week for the next four. Reflect on the theme. Wait.