Throughout the season of Advent, we have been looking at portions of Bobby Gross's devotional, Living the Christian Year. As I have mentioned in previous weeks, he talks about the importance of what he calls "inhabiting Advent." This week, we will look at how practicing restraint and retreat, while seemingly difficult this time of year, can deepen and refresh your spiritual life in general and enhance your observance of the season in particular. He begins by relaying an email he once received from a friend of his.
"My struggle boils down to this," bemoaned my friend Courtney. You can't be Mary and Martha at the same time; someone has to do the cooking!" She vented this frustration after a dinner party where the conversation had turned to the tension between Advent as a spiritual season and December as a month of cultural craziness. "Your description of Advent requires Mary time," she said in a later email, "yet of all times of the year...Advent is the most impossible to be Mary-like.The Christmas machine (church, school, family, neighborhood, office, charitable activities) is so giant that it would require radical steps to extricate oneself. Steps that could send a message to one's community of being uncharitable and that could feed resentment in one's own family." Point taken. To keep Advent as a season of spiritual reflection and waiting does require us to be countercultural. It is fitting then for the proclamation of John the Baptist (Lk 3:1-18) to be an Advent text, since he calls us to examine our patterns of behavior over against what is common in our culture... Our culture says, "Buy! Buy! Buy!" and starts saying it right after Halloween. We live year round in a consumer society, but Christmastime is consumerism gone nuts. The cacophony of advertising, the appropriation of religious themes for commercial gain, the secularizing and sentimentalizing of the sacred, all of this disturbs us. Still, it's not easy to resist the pressures. So we must choose to practice restraint. Although fasting in Advent is no longer emphasized, a variation of this discipline can benefit us spiritually. When we fast, we abstain from something that at other times and in appropriate measures is good. What good thing could we forgo or cut back as an Advent discipline? Could we skip mailing Christmas cards and send greetings at Easter instead? Or simplify gift-buying by making charitable donations in loved ones' names as an alternative? Could we decline a holiday party or two?" Or cut back on baking goodies---and on eating them? There is no right answer, of course, and we'll likely take different steps in different years. The point is to practice restraint as a countercultural act that opens up space in our lives for God. We can also practice retreat. Again, our culture says, "Go! Go! Go!" and "Do! Do! Do!" We can easily feel that our social reputation depends on our obedience to these impulses. Or our self-image. Or even our sense of spiritual worth. But these imperatives lure us into a trap, and we unthinkingly heed them to our spiritual detriment. If we practice restraint from activity, we can use some of the time gained to be alone, quiet and reflective. Even if the time is meager, even at the risk of criticism, we can follow Mary in her choice to stop and sit for a time at the feet of Jesus.
I don't know about you, but this is a reminder that I desperately need. As a singer and musician, it seems that every December fills up quickly with a bunch of extra seasonal activities. Attending a performance here, singing in a special service there, and before I know it, I've completely filled up my December calendar, and the time that I am supposed to be preparing myself in anticipation is spent running to and fro. I think it's easy for all of us to do something similar to this, whether it's parties, making food for friends and loved ones, or whatever the case may be for you. And while I don't think that our reaction should be to completely shut ourselves off from the world and not take part in anything, it might be good to take one or two things from his suggestions above and use that to practice restraint. To spend that time or effort in spiritual reflection or even in spending time with family or friends without feeling the need to accentuate that time with buying or going places. Have a game night, go caroling, or even spend time singing carols among yourselves at home. There are plenty of ways to experience and share the Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace of Christ without running ourselves crazy during the holidays. For myself, I know that my Advent observance would be helped, and it would be a great way to push back a bit against the consumerism of our culture.
Now, for this Sunday! Week 3 of Advent is the week that we focus on Joy. Historically, this Sunday is known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word that means "rejoice," so it is fitting that we celebrate our Joy in Christ and His birth on this day. This is also the only week during Advent that a pink candle is lit, rather than purple. Once we reach the third week of this season, we can sense that the celebration of the birth of Christ is near, which should cause us great joy. Therefore, our songs this week will couple the joy that we have in Christ with the longing that we the Church have for His second advent.
Pastor John's sermon will actually be centered around the wonderful Advent hymn "Joy to the World." And yes, "Joy to the World" is an Advent carol, not a Christmas carol! From phrases in the song such as "let every heart prepare him room," to "he comes to make his blessings flow," this song focuses on advent, especially the Second Coming of Christ. I had actually planned on us singing this song anyway, because of the obvious Joy and Advent tie-ins, so we will be singing this as the Hymn of Response after the sermon, as we respond to the joyous truth we will hear proclaimed from Scripture. The text of "Joy to the World" is actually based on Psalm 98, so we will bookend our service with the truth of the hymn by singing Psalm 98 as our Hymn of Ascent, using the Christmas hymn "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" as the melody.
One of the ways that we will focus on the proclamation of joy that was brought to the world is by looking at the promised birth and ministry of John the Baptist. As our Hymn of Praise, we will sing about the truth of John the Baptist's message by singing a traditional hymn called "On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry." As John the Baptist himself did, the hymn calls us to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Messiah, and joyfully reminds us that Christ is our salvation as well as our refuge. We will use the hymn "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" as the melody for this historic hymn text. For our Hymn of Rejoicing, we will sing another classic, well-known Advent hymn, "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," which speaks of Christ's mission to Redeem His people in coming to earth. Yet again, it is a song both of joy and also of longing; longing for the day when the long-expected Christ will return to rule His people in power.
As was the case last week, the choir will be singing an offertory anthem that directly ties into the sermon text. The offertory this week is called "Prepare the Way of the Lord," and is taken from Isaiah 40:4-5, which is not only most of the Old Testament reading, but is also referenced by John the Baptist in his message of the coming of the Messiah in Luke.
May your Advent be enriched both by the practicing of restraint and retreat in this busy time, as well as by your preparation for this Sunday's service. Let every heart prepare Him room!