Read an Excerpt
Advent A to Z
Prayerful and Playful Preparations for Families
By Sharon Harding, John Indermark
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
A is for ADVENT
What's coming? Ask a child that question tonight, and you will likely get "Christmas" for the answer. Or you might hear "Santa Claus": he who is coming to town and, as one song tells in surprisingly ominous language, bids that "you better watch out!"
"What's coming?" is also the question of Advent. In fact, the Latin roots of Advent mean "to come" or "to come toward." Advent is a season observed with eyes and hopes set in two directions. Advent looks back in order to prepare for celebrating the coming of Jesus as the infant nestled in a manger. Advent also looks forward to prepare for the coming of Christ, the Sovereign of all Creation at the end of history. Ironically, the Romans named the first month of the year Janus, the god whose two faces look backward and forward. Advent serves that same function, as it is the first season in the cycle of the church year. So Happy New Year to you!
But just what is "new"?
For the answer to that, the church traditionally turns to John the Baptizer as we set out on our Advent journey. From his wilderness pulpit, John summoned preparation on the part of those who made pilgrimage to hear the prophet announcing something—some One—remarkably new. But to those who thought that John himself might be the "one," he pointed them in another direction. "One who is more powerful than I is coming." He thus transformed the question of "what is coming" into "who is coming" for seekers in his time and in our own. But John also made clear that preparation for the coming One required repentance. To make way for the new, old ways needed to be let go. The journey thus was not simply geographical, not just out to the wilderness. The Advent journey summoned by John was covenantal, redirecting our relationships with God and neighbor. "Who was coming" demanded a radical new way of living.
John's call remains in place for the journey we would make in Advent. So what may be old and in need of letting go of in our time? Keep in mind Advent's "comings": the ancient birth of Jesus and the anticipated reign of Christ. What stands in your way of opening up to that ancient birth's meaning? Overfilled schedules and obsession with material gifts, which drain our energies and resources in the service of busy-ness and business? And what stands in your way of opening up to God's promised realm, the other "coming," for which this season would prepare us? The seduction of society's increasing self-centeredness, in which the future is squandered on the basis of what's in it for me now? Appeals to might makes right that leave no room at the political inn for One who comes as Prince of Peace?
A is for Advent, and not just because of the Christmas birth that is coming. Christ's promised realm is on the way. What will you do—and more important, how will you live—to prepare the way?
For Families With Children
Have some conversation about what or who is coming. Invite remembrances of previous Advent celebrations. Talk about any Advent traditions your family or church community observes.
Tell the story of John the Baptist, who was chosen to get the people ready for Jesus. Talk about his message to turn around and change your ways. Link this idea with Advent being a time to change and find new ways that help us better follow Jesus. Read Luke 3:10-14, and ask: What could we do to better follow Jesus? Invite the children to choose one or two of their responses as actions for your Advent focus.
Make or buy an Advent calendar to help the children keep track of the days in Advent. Create a short, simple ritual for using it each day.
For Couples or Friendship Groups
If you were to listen to commercial media alone, what would you think is coming?
Look through a local and a national newspaper or look at news reports online. Judging from the articles, what would you think is coming?
How do news events relate to Advent?
How might Advent address/transform what we see in the world around us?
Explore the websites BuyNothingChristmas.org and AdventConspiracy.org for Advent ideas.
Read Luke 3:2-14. What might you let go as you prepare to welcome Jesus and God's promised and coming realm? What things might be helpful to add to your preparations? Write or draw your responses on page 115 of the journal section.
Create an Advent collection jar by tying a thin purple ribbon around the neck of a clean glass jar. You will use this jar to collect coins most days during Advent. Decide what you will do with the money you collect. Total the ages of everyone who lives in your household. Place the corresponding number of coins in the jar.
For Children: Make a list of the people who announced Jesus' coming; this would include the prophets, Gabriel, Mary, Elizabeth, John the Baptist. Invite the children to join them and announce Jesus' coming. Print in the middle of a sturdy, white paper plate, "Jesus Is Coming." Have the children use crayons to decorate the edges of the plate. Or staple a piece of garland around the edge. Punch holes in the bottom edge of the plate, and use yarn or ribbon to attach jingle bells. Attach yarn or ribbon to form a hanging loop. Hang the finished craft on a door knob near to where you plan to gather for Advent activities.
For Adults: Listen to the Advent hymn "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," available on iTunes and Youtube. How do the words and images described in the song speak to you of Advent? What images are not helpful? Cut out pictures and words from magazines, newspapers, or old Christmas cards to create a montage that speaks to you of Advent.
Give thanks for this special time of waiting and hoping. Ask God to help you as you prepare to welcome Jesus.
B is for BETHLEHEM
Do you know what the town of Jesus' birth has in common with the tradition of making gingerbread houses for Christmas? Bread. In Hebrew, beth lehem means "house of bread." How the town came to be so named is a mystery.
Then again, why this village ends up as the birthplace of God's Messiah is also a mystery. You might have thought that God would have dropped anchor in Rome or, at the very least, Jerusalem, right in the center of attention, smack in the vortex of power. Granted, Bethlehem had been the hometown of none other than David, plucked up from the keeping the family flocks to be anointed by Samuel as the once-and-future king (Saul was still on the scene). But keep in mind: Close to a thousand years had passed since David came along. Things change; towns change. Whatever it might have been in David's time, Bethlehem was losing ground. Even the prophet Micah, who recorded the designation of the town as the locale of God's Promised One, couldn't help but put a qualifier on Bethlehem as "one of the little clans of Judah" (Micah 5:2).
Little. That assessment is preserved in the Christmas carol most associated with this site: "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Little, as in out of the way. Little, as in overlooked and unimportant. Few, if any, in the imperial capital of Rome would have cared a whit about such an out-of-the-way place in such an outof-the-way land. But maybe that is the point. "Little" Bethlehem suggests that God is unimpressed with grand edifices, whether of the architectural or personality or nationalistic sort. Rather, Bethlehem points to the God who is keen on common life and common people. The kind of folk for whom hope is not proven by present pomp and circumstances. The kind of folk who, like Joseph and Mary and the magi, undertake journeys in the hope of holy promises coming to light.
Light. Like little, light is another assessment made of Bethlehem in that carol noted above: "Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light." Light shining in darkened places forms a familiar expression of Biblical promise and fulfillment. Isaiah 9:2 attests to a people who walked in darkness having seen a great light. John 1:5 understands the coming for which we prepare in this season as light shining in darkness. Maybe that is part of why we string tiny lights on trees, and then turn off the house lights. We like the image of darkness broken by lights. We like the image of promises kept by Light.
B is for Bethlehem—not simply because that is where Joseph and Mary end up, but because God brings light to the most unexpected places amongst the most unlikely of persons and communities. For it is there—it is here—that the hopes and fears of all our years are met in the One who is Bread and Light for the world.
For Families With Children
Learn and sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem" together. As Christmas cards arrive, look for those with images that could illustrate the carol. Arrange them in a special display.
If you have a crèche scene, set up the stable in a central location. Tell the story of the journey Mary and Joseph had to make to Bethlehem. Start Mary and Joseph on their long journey by placing them some distance from the stable. Every day, move them closer to the stable until they arrive on Christmas Eve.
Talk about how the word Bethlehem means "house of bread." Serve some freshly baked bread. Explain that bread is an important source of food for many people around the world. Observe that one of Jesus' titles, or names, was "The Bread of Life." Whenever we eat bread, we can remember how important Jesus is to us. Observe how interesting it is that Jesus, The Bread of Life, was born in the house of bread.
For Couples or Friendship Groups
Distribute copies of the lyrics to "O Little Town of Bethlehem." (Lyrics can be found on the Internet.) Read the words silently, lingering over them to get beyond the familiarities and to find the affirmations.
What words or images strike you, in particular? Why?
In what ways does light affect our fears? our hopes?
Where have you seen God bring light to unexpected places and situations?
Darken the room, and light a candle. Reflect on ways in which light spills out and chases away darkness. Note that even a tiny crack lets light through.
Where are the dark places in our lives, community, or world?
How can we bring the light of Christ into these places?
What are your hopes and fears for this Advent season? What hope does Christ's coming evoke in you? Write or draw your responses on page 115 of the journal section.
Look through your Christmas ornaments. How many strings of lights, ornaments that incorporate light, and shining stars do you have? Place the corresponding number of coins in your collection jar.
Read Micah 5:2-5. Observe that there were two kings born in Bethlehem. The first was the great King David, and the second was Jesus.
For Children: Invite the children to share their ideas about rulers and kings. How did Jesus show God's ways of peace and love? How was this different from what King David did? How might we follow Jesus' example in our living?
For Adults: How might Jesus' birthplace and its link to David (a warrior king) have shaped the expectations of those who hailed Jesus as the promised messiah? In today's society, how do Jesus' teachings challenge prevailing wisdoms about where power resides?
Light a candle, and pray for peace in the world. Ask for God's help as you try to follow in the way of Jesus, the child of Bethlehem.
C is for CRÈCHE
A crèche is a three-dimensional representation of the Nativity scene. Many credit St. Francis of Assisi with the idea, created to make the Christmas story more accessible to common folk, who could not read. In 1223, he arranged for the erection of the first crèche. It consisted of a hay-filled manger and a live ox and donkey but no human figures. Over time, crèches became much more elaborate—whether in ornate carvings, multi-level platforms that rotated when the heat from candles turned fan-driven rotors, or even living crèche scenes. It is reported that King Charles III of Naples constructed a crèche 40 feet long and 125 feet wide, populating it with 500 wax figures of people and another 200 wax animals. In other words, it was not the sort of crèche to put under your tree or set on the mantle.
The way crèches represent the Nativity preserves an invitational form of nonverbal communication. We see the figures, and imagine the scene for ourselves. The eventual inclusion of others beside Joseph and Mary and the Child reminds us this season involves and affects more than just the Holy Family. St. Francis' inclusion of common farm animals underscores the meaning of this season's embracing all of creation. Even the smallest of children can look upon crèche figures and be led into wonder.
But there is another meaning to crèche that I stumbled upon by accident some years ago. While doing an Internet search on my family name for genealogy information, I came upon one "hit" that surprised and delighted me. Among the search engine results was an entry for a small village in the Limpopo province of South Africa named Indermark. But the entry was not so much about the town itself but its crèche: a preschool and daycare center for children of the village and surrounding area. I have since learned that crèche is actually a relatively common term in British circles for a day nursery or a hospital for foundlings (an older term for abandoned children).
What a marvelous addition to the traditional association of crèche with Nativity scene! A crèche is not exclusively limited to one child born in Bethlehem. Rather, a crèche can serve as a reminder that the One Child came as all children come: in need of caring, in need of love, in need of nurture. Indeed, the Child represented in our Christmas crèches would eventually do precisely that in his ministry: care with compassion, love unconditionally, nurture the very ones whom others tended to cast off whether by reason of birth (Samaritan) or disease (leper) or vocation (tax collector). In other words, Jesus came for the likes of all "foundlings" who would otherwise go unwanted.
So the next time you see a crèche, look closely at the child. Because in that one child in the manger, life comes to all of God's children --and our calling to care for all as did that One.
For Families With Children
If you have already set your crèche figures on their way to Bethlehem, share stories about the crèche's history or about why you chose it. Provide modeling clay and encourage family members to make extra figures: maybe someone in the story not included in the figures, a person or an animal that you think should be in the story, or yourself.
Gather craft supplies and make your own crèche. For inspiration go to the Pinterest website and search for Nativity scenes. Invite the children to use the crèche to tell the story of the first Christmas. Do not worry if they do not follow the biblical account exactly. What new insights do you gain from their retelling?
Sing "Away in a Manger." Younger children might enjoy rocking a toy to the music. Provide a box and small blankets to make a manger. Encourage imaginative play.
Refer to the animals included in crèches as reminders that we are called to care for all of creation. Make some edible decorations to feed the birds during the holiday season. One of the easiest feeders can be made by tying a string to the top of a pinecone, coating the pinecone with peanut butter, and rolling it in bird seed. Search for more ideas on the Internet. Consider feeding the birds for the rest of the winter.
For Couples or Friendship Groups
Watch on YouTube "O Holy Night—Josh Groban" set to scenes from The Nativity Story (http://youtu.be/4Zh-yR0pbmU). Or set up a crèche together, dim the lights, and play the carol.
What parts of the Nativity story are most important for you?
Where is the mystery for you?
Talk about broader meaning of the word crèche and how the "Child in a manger" calls us to care for all as he did. Ask:
What Advent activities might enable you to embody the compassion of Christ?
In what ways could you care for the Christ child by caring for children, especially those who are overlooked or left out? Write or draw your responses on page 116 of the journal section.
Count the number of figures in your Nativity scene. Place the corresponding number of coins in your collection jar.
Provide a variety of Christmas cards that depict the Nativity scene. Play "Away in a Manger" and/or "Infant Lowly," and invite participants to examine the pictures on the cards.
For Children: Talk about which picture they would like to step into and what they might see, smell, and hear.
Excerpted from Advent A to Z by Sharon Harding, John Indermark. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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