Advent marks the weeks before Christmas and is a time of anticipation, preparation and reflection leading up to Christmas Day.
Advent starts with the aptly named Advent Sunday. This is the 4th Sunday before Christmas Day and usually falls between 27th November and 3rd December. This year, 2023, it is 3rd December.
So, in 1839 he took a cartwheel and added candles to it. Each week day a small candle was lit and on Sundays a larger candle. Counting down the days to Christmas.
By the 1920s the custom had been adopted by other Christian denominations in Germany and soon spread, in the 1930s to North America.
Behind the wreath, there is symbology and meaning.
The advent wreath concept, of counting down to Christmas, has also spawned other Advent practices that we are familiar with.
Where a full wreath isn't possible, then a single candle marked with the days is often chosen.
Once again, Desborough & Toller URCs published an advent booklet with a reading for each day, written by a member of the congregation.
This year, each day took its inspiration from a line of the carol 'Once in Royal David's City'.
Here is one of the two that I wrote.
I was just 18 when I took that school trip.
We had travelled over 4 hours, by coach, to a remote kibbutz before heading to Bethlehem, which at that time was still within Israel. The land was undulating, and in the distance, the hills has a smattering of snow. As we drove through the countryside, we saw burnt out tanks, relics of the 6 days war. With the dry, arid environment, they looked as fresh as the day they had been hit, over 17 years earlier.
The coach was filled with young teenagers who were boisterous; laughing and chatting whilst at the back, I and my friend were feeling bleak from the landscape we had driven through.
The Church of the Nativity, as we arrived, was a plain solemn looking building. Set in a courtyard, we stayed back from the loud tourist hoards and walked in silence towards the entrance.
Nothing could have prepared me for the inside. The far end of the church, directly in front of us, was ornate and gilded. The smell of incense was overwhelming. This seemed a world away from the Bethlehem of the Bible.
We waited until everyone else from the group had finished and then went through a doorway. Carefully, we wound our way down the steps to the Grotto of the Nativity. It was the four of us. Myself, my friend, my teacher and a guide from the Church.
The grotto was so quiet after the noise of the coach and church. The guide pulled us towards the altar and showed us, underneath the fourteen-point silver star, marking where Jesus was born.
He looked around, conspiratorially, and beckoned us over, indicating for us to touch it. We three leaned in and placed our hands there, together. As we did this, I looked up at the cave we were in, below the church that was bustling, and in that quiet, sacred space, I connected with something bigger than myself.
Last year, I wrote three short pieces about Christmas. I wanted to share these again.
Marley’s Ghosts Part 1
When Jacob Marley’s Ghost visited, he showed Scrooge Christmases past, present and future.
My childhood favourite past memory of Christmas was attending Church for the midnight service.
The lights on the Christmas tree, always twice my height, would be twinkling against the tinsel. The winter flower arrangements would be full of holy berries, bright against the green of the laurels and holly leaves.
And the heating, although turned on sometime in June, never really worked so we were wrapped up to the nines under our choir robes.
I had been a member of the choir since I was in my teens. One of only two ‘kids’ allowed to be in the choir (there were auditions and a waiting list to join, it was extremely competitive).
To stand there, with the organ playing and us sopranos singing the descant to ‘O Come all ye faithful’ and the volume from the congregation being so loud, I couldn’t hear my own voice.
I’ve sung over the years in amateur choirs and semi-professional choral societies. Performing the Messiah was a wonderful experience and really pushed my vocal range. And they were fun and wonderful experience, but there is something completely different singing as part of a congregation.
When you sing in a concert, it’s for your enjoyment and the audience.
But at those Midnight Services, it was always the feeling that the all those people together, singing as one voice, regardless of talent or experience were truly making a joyful noise unto the Lord. And loving every, single, minute of it.
Marley’s Ghosts Part 2
Marley’s second ghost showed Christmas present.
A few years ago, we chose to celebrate Christmas day as just the two of us (and the kitties).
Having had my parents stay every Christmas for over 10 years, I naturally still catered for in case I should happen to have the missing 9th Legion of the Roman Army turn up. Who honestly needs a 6lb ham for two people? Well, at least we wouldn’t go hungry for the rest of January.
That first time that we sat down, just the two of us, for Christmas dinner, I realized that in the storm of all the preparations for Christmas, sometimes you need the simple peace of being with the person who means the most to you.
Yes, we have roast dinners throughout the year and yes sprouts are not just for Christmas. But, Christmas Day is the one day that there is very little traffic on the roads. Our house is quiet as are the streets around us. I like to get up early, sit listening to my mix of carols and Christmas songs and as I peel my potatoes and prepare my sprouts I get to talk to God, just on my own.
For one day, I am not anxious about anything. In fact, as I bring out our dinner and give thanks to God for everything, I am always overcome by that peace of God which passes all understanding and guards our hearts and minds.
Marley’s Ghosts Part 3
Looking forward with the last of Marley’s Ghosts I am always torn between the ghosts of Christmas past and present.
Wanting to be part of a Congregation celebrating Christmas together and being at home with just my husband enjoying the peace and personal closeness to God.
Yes, you can pop into Church for the Christmas day service and then go home to the quiet. But that doesn’t really explain the dilemma.
Coming together helps enthuse and encourage us in our faith, it brings us closer to God because we undertake the act of worship and do it as a community.
Spending time with ourselves in contemplation is also an important part of being a Christian. There is a difference between hiding from the world and taking a step away to separate yourself from your worries and concerns.
I’m lucky enough that once each year, at the start of Lent, I’m able to go on a sewing retreat at a monastery. When the commercialism of Christmas starts to overtake the meaning of Jesus’ birth, I will take time out to reconnect with what Christmas is really about.
For me, it is being able to connect in the weeks of advent leading up to our Christmas morning service, then to enjoy connecting with my personal relationship with God in the days following Christmas when I am at home with my husband and my cats so that I can truly hear that still, small voice of calm.