Advent

Advent Christmas liturgical seasons

Christmas Eve: Awaken to the Present

Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20

Here we are. It’s December 24, Christmas Eve. The day we have awaited is almost here! Whatever this season of Advent has been like for you, Christmas Eve is here. Tonight, we will celebrate Christ’s birth.

Take a deep breath. Scan your body. What does it feel like? Look around you. Where are you? What feelings do this place and this day evoke in you? As you reflect on this Advent season, what are you aware of? How did you experience God in these weeks preceding Christmas? In what ways were you awakened to God in this season? How are you aware of God right now, in this moment?

I’ll get personal here. My previous Advent reflections were written in October, long before Advent, but this one is being written in real time.

As I reflect on this Advent season, I am grateful. This Advent, I took things slowly. I didn’t do too much. I listened to my body, I paid attention to God, and I focused on what was in front of me. I savored the season of Advent, the gradual buildup to this day. Practicing awakening to God was a gift that helped me to remain oriented in this season.

As I reflect on the themes of awakening to the promise, to expectation, to abundance, and to wonder – I am amazed at God’s grace. This was not an easy Advent season. Our 3-year-old daughter was exposed to COVID at school (but thankfully, did not become ill). My dad was hospitalized in mid-December and will not be home for Christmas. This Advent was full of challenges and concern for loved ones. And yet, each week I was awakened to God in a new way:

Week 1: Awaken to the Promise – As I reflected on God’s promises, I was reminded of God’s faithfulness in bringing comfort and peace when we need it most.

Week 2: Awaken to Expectation – As I awakened to expectation, God’s grace became tangible in the form of roses blooming and tomato plants still producing fruit in December, both totally unexpected.

Week 3: Awaken to Abundance – As I focused on abundance, I was sustained by the generous love and care of friends during a week when it would have been easy to become consumed by scarcity.

Week 4: Awaken to Wonder – As I sought to experience wonder, I was delighted by the gift of play and the creativity of our 7-year-old daughter.

Now that it’s Christmas Eve, I am practicing being present to this day, to what is, not to what I wish could be. I pray that you, also, can be present this day and throughout the entire season of Christmas, to what is…the sacrament of the present moment is God in our midst. And that is exactly what we will celebrate tonight – the birth of Emmanuel, God WITH us.

That statement is in the present tense because Jesus is present, here with us and within us now. Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, and our awareness of God with us enables that light to shine even brighter. May you be present and aware, fully awake to God in our midst this day, and in the days to come. And whether through candlelight in the midst of darkness or the sunrise of a new day, may you rest in the reminder that the light is here, in this moment, and will always be. That is the best present that we could possibly ask for.

Advent liturgical seasons spiritual practice

Advent 4: Awaken to Wonder

Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:39-45, Luke 1:46-55

Let’s face it: the story of Jesus’ birth is bizarre, almost unbelievable. It goes like this: God came to earth in human form, as a baby, born in a barn to a poor couple, following a miraculous conception and pregnancy. When he was born, this baby was visited by angels and shepherds and kings from another land. Later, this child grew up to become an amazing teacher with a large following whose death (and resurrection) would change the entire world. This is a difficult story to get behind. Some of the facts are debatable. The details are fuzzy. But it is still true. It is true because we have seen the evidence of the story in our lives and in the world. We are changed by it. That’s why we believe it, and that is why we are so full of wonder at this story. 

Wonder is a sense of awe or amazement at something. Wonder comes upon us when we are astonished at what we see or experience. There are many stories in scripture that evoke wonder in the characters in the stories, or in us, as readers and participants from outside the story. In the Old Testament, the story of Moses and the burning bush comes to mind, as well as the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. In the New Testament, we think of Jesus’ miracles and of the stories of the early church in the book of Acts. But some of the most astonishing things in the New Testament actually came before Jesus’ birth, during Mary’s pregnancy. 

When Mary – a young girl, pregnant and unmarried – went to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was old and miraculously pregnant herself, something wonderful happened. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb, who we know as John the Baptist, leaped for joy at Mary’s arrival (with Jesus in her womb) and Elizabeth proclaimed Jesus as Lord – the first person to do so. The vigorous movement of her child within her communicated to Elizabeth that something amazing was happening. Elizabeth was filled with wonder and proclaimed with a loud voice her astonishment at what God was doing within her and within Mary. In response, she blessed Mary, validating and believing her, when possibly no one else had done so. In this story, we get to see the way that God works in the relationship between these two women. Both are experiencing something wonderful (and probably lonely) as they fulfill God’s prophecies in the most embodied way possible: through pregnancy and birth. Their companionship is God’s gift of grace to them.

God is doing amazing things in the world all the time, but we don’t always notice them. When we are on our way to the store or to work or to the doctor or simply at home, God is always present with us. However, we might miss God’s work and the opportunity to be filled with wonder if we are too focused on where we think we will find God instead of looking for God in everything that we do, everywhere that we are. The practices below are intended to evoke an experience of wonder within you in some way, either through experiencing it, as you become more aware and awake to God’s presence, or through remembering an experience of wonder in your past and re-experiencing it in some way in the present. Choose one of the following: 

  1. Look at something tiny with a magnifying glass or microscope or look at the night sky with a telescope. Look closely and reflect on what you can see with that “magnifier” that you could not see without it. 
  2. Create something (art, writing, music, dance, whatever you feel inspired to create!) that exemplifies the word “wonder” as you have experienced it in your life. 
  3. Follow a young child around, at their pace. Do not hurry them or make suggestions. Let the child lead. Do this for at least 15 minutes, but consider challenging yourself to do it for an hour or more. 
  4. Journal about a time in your life when you were filled with “wonder.” Reflect on what that experience was like. Consider what it meant to you then, and what it means to you now. 

This is an excerpt from a study I created for my church for Advent 2021. During this season, I will post weekly on the theme, “Awaken.” I pray that as we journey through Advent, we will all awaken to what God is doing in and around us. If you missed the introduction/overview, you can find it here.

Advent liturgical seasons spiritual practice

Advent 3: Awaken to Abundance

Isaiah 12:2-6, Luke 3:7-18, Philippians 4:4-7

Perhaps the best way to define abundance is with one word: grace. During Advent we are reminded of the abundance of God’s provision in our lives because of the birth of Jesus, the promised Messiah, who was and is far more than we can possibly imagine or hope for. Grace is the embodiment of God’s love for all humanity. Grace became possible when God came to earth, as a baby, born to a poor couple in a barn. They didn’t have much other than faith, hope, and an amazing ability to trust in God’s promises…but that was more than enough. 

In many ways, the world today is starkly different from the world Jesus was born into. Humans have continued to evolve, in both positive and alarming ways. But we have something in common with first century Palestinians: we often get caught up in scarcity and miss the abundance in our lives. As he prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist called the people to repentance. He urged them to become aware of their abundance instead of focusing on their scarcity, to be content with what they have instead of keeping for themselves what they could be sharing with others. John the Baptist could have been preaching in the 21st century! 

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, it is easy to feel as though we have too much and not enough at the same time. Often, this is an illusion, a cultural myth that we are encouraged to – literally – buy into. For many of us, our needs are not only met, but exceeded. Yet, it is easy to feel as though we do not have enough. The season of Advent is a reminder that there is enough, we have enough, and we are enough, by God’s grace. We do not need more; we simply need to be aware of the  abundant gift of God’s presence and grace in our lives. 

Some of us may be lacking something: income, a safe place to live, physical/emotional health, or companionship. Others are grieving a significant loss, or have responsibilities that require more time and energy than you have. It is very hard to lack something you need, especially during this season. If this is you: may you experience the abundant gift of God’s love and grace, carrying you through this difficult time, even in the midst of what you lack. 

Take a moment to pause and notice God’s abundant provision for you. Engage in one of the practices below, with the knowledge that there is enough, more than enough – even if you stop and take care of yourself, even if you share what you have with others. Perhaps, in the act of intentionally engaging in one of these practices as an act of resistance to the myth that there is not enough, you will experience abundance in a new way. Choose one of the following: 

  1. Observe the Sabbath. Resist the temptation to claim that you “don’t have time” to stop being productive for an entire day. Just pick a day, practice intentional rest and renewal, and see what happens. (Alternatively, if you want to practice this in “bite-size” form, take a nap. When you feel tired, don’t seek out caffeine, just take a nap.) 
  2. Explore your home and discover what you have an abundance of. Find a way to share with others out of your abundance. 
  3. Volunteer your time/share your gifts in service of others. You could volunteer to serve a local charitable organization, or you could help a friend or family member. 
  4. Journal about what “abundance” means to you. Also consider: what is the opposite of abundance? What does each one feel like? In what aspect(s) of your life are you experiencing abundance right now?

This is an excerpt from a study I created for my church for Advent 2021. During this season, I will post weekly on the theme, “Awaken.” I pray that as we journey through Advent, we will all awaken to what God is doing in and around us. If you missed the introduction/overview, you can find it here.

Advent liturgical seasons spiritual practice

Advent 2: Awaken to Expectation

Luke 1:67-79, Luke 3:1-6, Philippians 1:3-11

Advent is a pregnant time, full of expectation. In the literal sense, Advent is one of the few times of the year when we engage biblical stories of pregnancy and birth. But it is also a pregnant time because we anticipate and look forward with hope to the birth of Christ and toward God’s promised Kingdom. We remember during Advent that God’s Kingdom is both already and not yet: here on earth in the form of the Christian community, and yet to be fully realized in a future that we hope for with expectation that Christ will come again. 

As we look toward the future, the stories of the past remind us that God rarely conforms to our human expectations. The scriptures we read and study during Advent remind us that God always fulfills God’s promises, but often in the most unexpected ways. That’s what happened to the priest Zechariah, who did not expect that his wife, Elizabeth (who was barren), would be able to become pregnant and bear a child in her old age. Because he did not believe the angel’s words, Zechariah became mute until his son, John the Baptist, was born (Luke 1:18-20, 59-66). It is clear through the prophecy he spoke when he regained his speech that Zechariah encountered God powerfully through this experience, in both expected and unexpected ways.  

We, too, have the opportunity to encounter God in both expected and unexpected ways during this season. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all have expectations for the season ahead. They may be traditions we want to keep, hopes of spending time with loved ones, the desire to avoid something uncomfortable or painful during this season, or the intention to try something new. Whatever your expectations are, and however they unfold during this season, don’t forget to remain awake and aware, looking for the unexpected ways that God is working. While this may be easier when things are going well, the need to cancel or alter plans sometimes has the effect of creating space for something else to happen…perhaps, even an unexpected encounter with God. Pay attention so you don’t miss it! 

You are encouraged to choose a spiritual practice for this week that that is counter-intuitive for you. If you think “I do not expect to encounter God through that…” perhaps that is the practice you should try. Whatever practice you choose, expect to be aware of God’s presence in a new way and allow yourself to be surprised at where and how God is revealed to you. Choose one of the following: 

  1. Do something slowly and intentionally, focusing fully on what you are doing. Examples: eat a meal, drink a glass of water, rock in a rocking chair, observe an animal, fold the laundry, wash the dishes, etc. 
  2. Pray in a way you usually do not. Examples: use prayer beads, try breath prayer, embodied prayer, or praying in color, etc.
  3. Get up early, go outside, and watch the sunrise. Reflect on your experience. 
  4. Journal about your expectations for this Advent/Christmas season. Also consider: How do your expectations align (or not) with God’s promise to send a savior to the world? How have you experienced God at Christmas in the past, in both expected and unexpected ways? 

This is an excerpt from a study I created for my church for Advent 2021. During this season, I will post weekly on the theme, “Awaken.” I pray that as we journey through Advent, we will all awaken to what God is doing in and around us. If you missed the introduction/overview, you can find it here.

Advent liturgical seasons spiritual practice

Advent 1: Awaken to the Promise

Psalm 25:1-10, Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:25-36

During the season of Advent, it is as if time is no longer linear. Instead, time morphs into something that is hard to grasp and even more challenging to describe. We look forward to a birth that has already occurred two thousand years in the past. We read prophetic passages from centuries prior to Jesus’ birth. We read Jesus’ actual words, about the promise of his future coming, as a means of preparation for celebrating Jesus’ birth. We imagine a future that was promised more than two thousand years ago, and we wait with hope for its arrival. Past, present, and future are held together. We remember that God is faithful as we celebrate the already and not yet, promises fulfilled and promises yet to come, that Christ is born and Christ will return. 

But it’s not all about what happened in the past or what will happen in the future. Advent is about what God is doing, here and now. It is about the work of God within us, as we remember God’s faithfulness and anticipate the future. It is about being awake to God’s presence with us at all times, in all things. It is about who we are becoming in this season. As we pay attention to God’s work in our everyday lives and in the world around us, God is working within us, changing us from the inside out. 

In Advent, God is doing a new thing. What is that new thing? God is fulfilling God’s promise of making all things new by making us new and remaking us every day, through grace. Another word for that is sanctification. It is happening within each of us and within the community of faith. These are signs of God’s kingdom here on earth, right now. And as we hope for a future that we cannot see, we do so with faith because of the promises God has made. 

You may want to consider choosing a spiritual practice for this week that will enable you to practice awakening to God. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  1. Practice contemplative walking. Take a walk without the goal of exercising or going a certain distance or direction. Walk slowly, being attentive to signs of God’s promises in the natural world and following God’s leading.  
  2. Be intentional as you make plans during this season. As you plan your calendar, make lists, and decide how to spend your time, remember what Advent is for. Be sure to leave room to slow down and practice becoming aware of God’s presence. 
  3. Pray Psalm 25:1-10. Don’t just read it; pray it. Try praying the psalm every day this week. Consider praying it in a different translation each day, to deepen your practice. 
  4. Journal about the word “promise” and what it means to you. How have you experienced God’s promises in the past? How are you experiencing them in this particular season?

This is an excerpt from a study I created for my church for Advent 2021. During this season, I will post weekly on the theme, “Awaken.” I pray that as we journey through Advent, we will all awaken to what God is doing in and around us. If you missed the introduction/overview, you can find it here.

Advent liturgical seasons spiritual practice

Advent is here…awaken!

Advent unfolds gradually, like the sunrise each morning. Whether we are awake for it or not, paying close attention or completely absorbed in other things, the sun takes its time to peek over the horizon and rise into the sky. As it rises, the sun brightens the earth and warms the day. Almost imperceptible in the moment, the sunrise ultimately transforms everything the sunlight touches. We cannot do anything at all to rush it along, and we can easily miss it. Each week of Advent, as we move closer to celebrating the birth of Jesus, we light another candle and a little more light shines into the darkness. It is a slow process, a gradual unfolding that is easy to miss if we are not intentional. We may move through our days without paying attention, or become so focused on December 25 that we neglect to notice what God is doing in the four weeks prior. Each day when the sun rises, it is a reminder of God’s faithfulness and God’s promise to make all things new. Advent, the season that begins a new church year, is also a time of new beginning, full of promise and hope. This Advent, wake up, pay attention, and don’t miss what God is doing in our midst! 

“Awake” or “awaken” is a verb – an action word – that means to wake up, to become active, to become conscious or aware. The season of Advent calls us to wake up and to remain awake, aware, and conscious of God’s work in the world and in our own lives, of the promises fulfilled and the promises yet to come to fruition. Advent is a season of preparation for the birth of Christ. As we prepare, God is forming us, sanctifying us, making us new. This season beckons us to be active participants in God’s work, here and now. This is your invitation to practice awakening to God throughout this Advent season, to intentionally practice paying attention and becoming more aware of God’s presence within you, within others, and in the world around you. 

This awareness of God in the present moment, in all things, wherever you are and whatever you are doing, is what the French Jesuit and mystic Jean-Pierre de Caussade called the “sacrament of the present moment.” In Wesleyan terms, we would call this awareness of God in the present a “means of grace,” an avenue through which we experience God’s grace. Whatever we call it, the practice of being awake and aware of God is just that: a practice, something to attempt over and over again, each and every day. The change that occurs through this practice will be almost imperceptible in the moment. But like the sunrise transforms everything the light touches, this practice has the potential to gradually transform your entire life. 

Practicing “awakening” will necessitate slowing down and paying attention. While that will look different for each one of us, perhaps it will mean talking less and listening more, or additional time spent in silence. It might mean being attentive to your body and your physical needs. It could mean doing routine tasks with renewed focus or trying new things that are the opposite of what you would usually do. It will likely require being intentional about what you do and what you choose not to do. All of this might be counter-intuitive during this season when our culture encourages us to do more and buy more, to seek novelty and move quickly, all accompanied by a constant soundtrack. The counter-intuitive nature of this practice is precisely why it is appropriate for the season of Advent, when we anticipate the birth of Jesus, who changed the world while defying expectations. May this practice enable us to follow him more faithfully during this season and beyond. 

This is the introduction to a study I created for my church for Advent 2021. During this season, I will post weekly on the theme, “Awaken.” I pray that as we journey through Advent, we will all awaken to what God is doing in and around us.