Anglicans value Advent. This is a generalisation, but I think it’s a mostly accurate one. We keep many traditions through this season like wreaths, festivals of lessons & carols, community gatherings with music, the great “O” antiphons at Evening Prayer, and so on. We also often see increasing attendance at liturgies like this one, not just on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but through the season of Advent. This is a season we invest in and which we value. We look forward to it every year, not only as the precursor to Christmas, but for its own sake. The experience of Advent is good and holy and worthwhile; a journey that is, in its own way, as good as the destination.
Our love of Advent stands in contrast to the secular world. About three weeks ago, most places began to observe Christmas. To be clear, most of them began to observe the secular Christmas which, these days, has little in common with Christian Christmas other than the name and some leftover images. Secular Christmas is, largely, a renewal of the seasonal values and ideas of about sixty years past. It is presented with Rockwellian images of mischievous children, housewives in aprons cooking feasts, twinkling lights everywhere, and everywhere extolling very particular ways of celebrating and observing the season. Secular Christmas is a season which begins just after Halloween and ends on December 25, and of which one of the most important features is how much one is willing and able to spend to participate.
In contrast, we come to church today, gathered for the First Sunday of Advent, with the anticipation of our beloved season in mind. We are looking forward to a Christmas season that begins the night of December 24 and runs all of the way until February 2. Here, rather than yet another repeat of Jingle Bell Rock, we are confronted with today’s readings. We hear prophecy, teaching, and Gospel that speak of dark times, conflict, and divine judgement. We are reminded that Advent—one of our favourite seasons in Anglicanism—is also a season that finds comfort, wisdom, and cause for joy in the dark.
Humans are, generally, fearful of the dark. We don’t see well in the dark, limiting what we can do at night. The dark can be quite dangerous, whether you’re camping and in a surprisingly close relationship with a nocturnal animal or making your way through your home and crashing into a piece of furniture. This time of year, the dark can be especially worrisome. The nights get very long and we are reminded that we will not be able to grow more food for several months. Shorter days mean less time for many kinds of work and, if those days are grey, the season can become emotionally heavy. The dark can be difficult and frightening. Advent says that the dark is beautiful, sacred, and, most importantly, helps us to see the light.
Advent wreaths began as part of evening prayers in people’s homes. Our church—most Anglican churches around the world—do not have ceremonies for lighting Advent wreaths in the liturgy. The ones we use are either locally-written or borrowed from other churches. There is no objection to having them in church, but they’re still understood as rituals that primarily happen in our homes, with our families and friends, at evening as the sun goes down and the darkness settles in. We gather to praise God, offer thanks, share our concerns, and to light candles. The candles are reminders that, as the Gospel according to John says, there is light and darkness will not overcome it, and that darkness has its own gifts to offer. Light and darkness, like sour and sweet, each help us to understand the other.
Advent, with its traditions of keeping lights burning, bringing greenery indoors, and preparing for Christmas celebrations, reminds us that it is okay to do less. We can slow down and rest. We can reflect and plan. Slow and steady, like the burning of a beeswax candle, does not mean death, but a different pace. A contrast to the pressure and rush of the commercial world. Today’s readings remind us that there will be times when the world feels out of balance. That it is too dark for too long. Times when we feel troubled and anxious, when it seems that there are few signs of light.
Advent, with its quiet, reflective themes, reminds us that the Light of the World is never extinguished. Perhaps just as important, Advent also reminds us that the darkness holds sacred gifts all its own if we are willing to slow down and keep watch as they are revealed to us. Gifts of calm, quiet, reflection, rest, and reminders—like candles and evergreen boughs—of God’s constant presence with us.
This year, may you receive a multitude of gifts and blessings, not only under the Christmas tree, but through the dark, holy season of Advent.