How We Practice Advent

I’ve been practicing Advent in some form or another since I was first introduced to the church calendar in college. But it wasn’t until having kids that I really evaluated the traditions we wanted to instill as a family. A friend recently asked how to start practicing Advent so I thought I’d walk you through how our family does it. Each year is a bit different and one of the most important things I’ve learned is to find what works for you.

There are so many resources available and you could make Advent as complex or simple as you want. But the point is to pause and anticipate the birth of Jesus. The whole practice is about slowing down and remembering this huge part of our story. It has become one of my favorite seasons and I love instilling these practices in our girls’ spiritual journey. I hope you find this helpful!

Thankful Trees
IMG_7419We actually start our Advent season on November 1 with a Thankful Tree. (This has nothing to do with actual Advent but I still count it as preparation.) Since I’m not crafty, I bought a bulletin board tree at a teacher supply store and hang it in our dining room. I also buy premade leaves. If you like crafting, this would be a fairly simple project. Each night, we share one thing we’re thankful for – from family and friends to glow sticks and technology. We write it on a leaf and tape it to our tree trunk. By the end of November, the wall is filled with small and big things we’re thankful for. This month of thankfulness prepares us for our nightly Advent readings. I’ve come to view it as preparation for the preparation of Christmas. I like having a rhythm in place by the time Advent arrives.

Wreath & Candles
IMG_2389If you do nothing else, an Advent wreath and 4 candles would be significant enough. Each candle represents part of the journey toward Bethlehem, though depending on the tradition, they mean different things. The first candle is Prophecy or Hope, the second is Bethlehem or Preparation, the third is Shepherd or Joy, and the fourth is Angel or Love. In the middle is a Christ Candle. Each night we light a candle and read a devotion together. As the month progresses, our table gets brighter and brighter. We keep the Christ candle lit all day for Christmas and then I save it to use during Epiphany.

Here are some resources for the meanings behind the candles:
United Methodist Church
Catholic Education

I know some people make wreaths out of greenery. One year, I used a tin and short candles since Bea liked to grab things off the table. Last year, I found a gold wreath at Target that worked well for a reusable wreath. I know Amazon has some decorative ones, too. Again, find what works for you.

Daily Readings
I suppose you could simply light a candle and read a Bible verse to guide you through Advent. I like using a short devotional and there are plenty out there. Search for Advent books by your favorite authors for a start. Here are a few I’ve used:

In Joyful Hope: Meditations for Advent by Henri Nouwen
My parents sent this to me in college and I’ve read it every year and still haven’t tired of it. I love Nouwen’s gracious and simple way of sharing big ideas.

Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas by Ann Voskamp
Even though Ann Voskamp can be a bit wordy for my girls, her daily reflections are easy to compress for shorter attention spans. I also love all the resources that go along with this book. Sometimes I’ll print a full page coloring sheet for Bea to use while I read the story. Last year, we created our own little Jesse tree in the playroom with printed ornaments. It’s a good guide for families with younger kids.

The Beautiful Word for Christmas by Mary DeMuth
I read this book for review last month so haven’t yet used it during Advent, but am looking forward to incorporating it into my personal readings this year. (You can read my review here.)

Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro
I haven’t read this but Enuma Okoro is a favorite author and it is on my radar for when I need a refresh in my readings.

Praying in Anticipation
A few years ago, I hosted a series here on the blog for Advent. Each day featured a prayer or meditation from a different guest.

Celebrating the Feasts
I love celebrating the Feast Days of December. On December 6 Bea and Elle pick their favorite dinner and we put boots by the fireplace and read a book about St. Nicholas. In the morning, chocolate coins and Christmas pajamas are waiting. We make lentil and sausage soup on New Year’s Eve and buy a Galette des Rois on January 6 to celebrate the Magi. In each case, we read stories and talk about the significance of the food. This is something I’d like to research more and incorporate more intentionally into the month, but for now, we’ve picked a few that work for us.

IMG_3089For the 12 days after Christmas, we use lights to remember the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem. Even after we take down our decorations on New Year’s, we leave the lights on the tree and outside the house. We also continue to light the Christ Candle from our Advent wreath. On January 6, we buy a Galette des Rois and eat food “from the east.” (We use this loosely – anything east of Colorado counts.)

I’m no expert in Advent or the Church Calendar, but I have found great significance in incorporating these practices as a family. I love that we are intentionally anticipating Christmas and that the girls will know more about the holiday than Santa Claus and presents under the tree. Those are still part of what we do, but my hope is they remember much more. I’ve also left out a lot of the details, partly because it would make this too long and partly because this isn’t a how-to. It’s a starting point. Try a couple things and add to them as you feel works. There is no right or wrong way to anticipate the birth of Jesus.

Do you practice Advent? What are some of your favorite resources? How did you get started on this journey?


Don’t Let the Light Go Out

The presents are opened. Visitors have gone home. Frank is back at work. Toys and metallic glitter markers and new books are still piled on surfaces, waiting to find a home. (Or, as much of a home as a constantly used playroom allows…)

img_2942On Christmas Day, we burned our Advent candles down to small stubs. This year, I bought a giant pillar candle for the Jesus candle. It doesn’t go with the rest of our Advent wreath, but I needed a giant reminder that this candle continues to light our way.

In some ways, I’ve been looking more forward to Epiphany than I did to Advent. This idea of the light guiding the wisemen to the baby. (Or toddler? I don’t really know the exact timeline.) We’re not a liturgical family – we put up our tree and decorations after Thanksgiving; we celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6; Christmas was our culmination.

And yet, even though we’ll slowly take down decorations this week and put the tree outside after New Year’s, we’ll keep the outdoor lights up through January 6. We’ll order a King’s Cake from the French bakery by Frank’s office. And we’ll keep the Jesus candle going.

I have friends who light candles to pray – a symbol that a small flame can make such a different. Maybe there’s something greater to the Catholic tradition of lighting candles as prayers than a mere habit. I’ll keep the Jesus candle lit through Epiphany but maybe I need to keep it going longer. Maybe we need to enter Lent with lights going rather than in darkness. Maybe we need to keep this candle lit as a symbol that our world is still groaning and waiting for a miracle.

Maybe this candle will be a reminder not only to pray but to do. I have a feeling that this year will need a lot of us doing more – living our faith louder and more clearer. Being better neighbors, kinder humans.

We lit the Shabbat candles with our neighbors a few weeks ago. As we covered our eyes and followed the ancient prayers, we were told that the candles aren’t extinguished; they’re left through the meal and into the evening to burn down. A reminder to not let the light go out.

As this year comes to a close and we begin 2017 with a fresh perspective, I’ll keep the candle going. Because Advent brought hope and I’m not ready to forget that.

Do you observe Epiphany? How do you remember Christmas throughout the year?

The Work of Peace

Mom, what do you want for Christmas? Bea asked the other day.

Oh, Time…… I responded wistfully, thinking of how lovely a quiet, peaceful afternoon with nothing to do would feel.

No, I think you want matching Christmas jammies with me.

Matching jammies!

This week we lit the Peace candle on our Advent wreath. It’s a time to remember the declaration that this tiny baby came to bring peace on earth.

Especially with events of the past few months, it’s difficult to remember this promise: That God has come to bring peace. We’ve been inundated by name-calling politicians; by images of genocide and babies raised in the midst of the horrors of war; by those trying to protest peacefully being attacked violently; not to mention the everyday violence that somehow has become less horrific in comparison.

Lately, the word peace brings images of quiet and rest. And that’s one way to view the word. I remember when I was teaching, my classroom was rarely quiet. The kids were on task (mostly!) and busy, but there was a steady hum and buzz of work happening. I rarely asked for absolute quiet for several reasons. Partly, because it’s nearly impossible to require that of 26 8-year-olds and partly because absolute quiet isn’t often conducive to work getting done.

When I look at the buzz and noise of the world around me, sometimes I wish it would all just stop – that we would have peace at last. But I don’t think that’s the sort of peace that Jesus promises. I wonder if peace will come in the buzz of work being done. Of activists working toward social justice; of doctors working in dangerous areas; of politicians fighting for what’s best in our country.

When people lament the noise of continuous news or social media, I get it – it is a loud, often cacophonous drone. I long for the days of Facebook being about baby pictures and “What I’m thinking of…” But the reality is that I learn so much from following those who are different from me on Twitter; from seeing images of justice workers on Instagram. Sometimes I need the background noise to be the hum of work, as a reminder that peace can be a noisy and messy process.

So, while I wish for time and quiet space, I also am reminded that the peace of Christmas comes with activity, with purpose, and with work toward the promise of a deeper peace.

How are you reminded of peace in these final days before Christmas? How do you practice the work of peace?

Instinct as Answered Prayer

Mom? Mama? Mom? Mom? MOM???? YOU ARE INTERRUPTING ME!!

img_2319If I don’t immediately pause my conversation or activity, Bea often feels that I’m interrupting her. We then get into a circular conversation that no, she is interrupting me. And so it continues…

Sometimes I wonder if this is how my communication with God looks. God will be preparing something or answering a prayer but I continue to interrupt, impatient for an “answer” or a “clear plan.” Instead of listening, I demand that action happens now and my own circular conversation ensues.

I guess what’s hard is that sometimes action needs to be immediate; sometimes I need to trust my own instinct. It’s quite rare for me to hear a booming voice from the heavens answering my questions and yet I’m still learning that God has given me intuition as a valuable way of discerning the world.

I’m not saying that I know the right way or that my own way is the best way. But I’m learning to sit in the quiet; to find light in the darkness; and to remember that the Creator God has created me to understand far more than I realize.

I look to Mary, who grappled and asked and then trusted and pondered that trust quietly. In this season of anticipation, I remember that God does answer but it’s more of a conversation and perhaps God is pausing, too.

How does your conversation with God look? How do you find the answers?

Linked with Kate Motaung’s Five Minute Friday, a time to write without editing. Today’s prompt is Now.

The Joy of Newborns

We’re officially in the midst of holiday busyness – parties and shopping and December birthdays filled our week. All really good things, filled with the wonder of relationships and community. But busy, nonetheless.

Newborn Elle

Frank’s birthday was last weekend and, as has become our tradition, he took Friday off work and we spent the whole day Christmas shopping. We braved the mall. We went to Toys R Us. We were exhausted and overstimulated. But we also went out to lunch. And we chatted and connected. We found that it’s a good way to infuse the magic of Christmas into the chore of Christmas shopping.

This week we light the joy candle on our Advent wreath. (Though, in keeping with our theme of messy Advent, we didn’t actually light it on Sunday…) This week, we remember the shepherds awe and wonder and declaration of joy at the newborn king.

This week makes me remember the joy of the newborn phase. No matter how long or short or hard or easy labor is; No matter how fussy or happy newborns can be; No matter how we rank our newborn and new parent experiences – This phase is exhausting. They are up in the middle of the night; they are helpless; they are so needy.

And yet, when our girls were first born, I experienced joy in a way I could never have imagined before. In the midst of tiredness and overstimulation and fumbling through getting to know a brand-new human, there is an underlying joy that goes beyond happiness and contentment. It’s the joy I imagine Mary felt in those first few hours of new motherhood.

It’s, by extension, the joy that the shepherds experienced when they found this newborn baby.

This week, even in the midst of stocking stuffer shopping and pageants and more parties, I hope to keep that memory of newborn joy present. The joy that is so transformative and transcending. The joy that is Christmas.

How do you remember joy in the midst of this crazy time of year? How does joy differ from happiness for you?

Finding Hope in the Messiness

Advent either started yesterday or last Sunday, depending on how you observe the season. Regardless, we’ve gotten off to a semi-rocky start. We’ve had a dinner-long meltdown during our candlelit meal because I wouldn’t turn off all the lights; I forgot to print out the Jesse Tree ornaments that go along with Unwrapping the Greatest Gift; and our first piece of candy for the calendar was dug out of the depths of our leftover Halloween candy treat basket.

My friend Debby said it best in her post about being Out of Sync with Advent:

When I thought about how out of sync we’d be with the Christian world I realized that Jesus intentionally lived his life out of sync with the world. He came to turn things upside down a bit. To remind us that he is the way to true life, not money or status.

img_2389This point of view has helped me as we start out this week of Hopeful waiting. And perhaps it’s why we begin with the hope candle. Hope itself is so expansive, so messy and sometimes rocky.

Hope can embody a deep anticipation but it can also be a bit out of sync. I often use the phrase, I hope so not to mean eager waiting but to hedge any expectation, in case things don’t work out. I use hope to water down excitement; to guard against disappointment.

This season has been one of reframing hope. I find myself using the word when talking about politics, about current events. I hope things work out; I hope it’s not as bad as it seems; I hope it’s better than I expect.

But what kind of hope is that? What I need to do is frame hope in the sense of complete trust. We are waiting in darkness, eager for the light and hope to emerge with Christmas. I put my trust in that hope; I put my trust in the small child who promises peace to our world.

My hope for this Advent season is that we take the time to recognize and sit with the rockiness that is life. Jesus didn’t come to give us an easy life or a beautiful Christmas memory. He came to turn this world upside down; to stir up the status quo; to cast out fear. Perhaps that’s not what we see in the small baby in the manger but it’s what is to come. I find that messy, a bit scary, but ultimately so very hopeful.

How has your Advent started? How do you find hope in the midst of real life messiness?

The Importance of Darkness

Mama? Can I just snuggle?

I knew that it was somewhere around 6:00. Frank had already left for work; I was starting to wake up, too but the sun hadn’t yet peeked through our curtains. Normally, we try to keep Bea in bed until her alarm turns green but on this morning, I moved Frank’s pillow closer and tucked Bea in beside me.

Image courtesy of Debby Hudson.

I’ve been working a lot lately and my part-time job has felt full. Our girls have felt the strain of time and energy. Even though Bea recently asked if I could go back to work so she could have a nanny like our neighbors, being gone so much had an impact.

When Elle misses me, she gets extra clingy, not wanting to be set down. When Bea misses me, she swings between being extra affectionate and being a rabid jaguar. Sunday seemed to lean more toward the jaguar end of the spectrum and I was so tired.

So, when she asked to snuggle, part of me just wanted time before we started our day together. But, I also knew that this girl who thrives on physicality – from hugs and snuggles to running and being active – needed to just be near, to be grounded.

I feel like I’ve needed to re-ground myself lately. I still wake up in a bit of shock over choices being made by our soon-to-be leaders. I’m sickened and sad over the way events are being handled and people are being treated. The divide in ideology makes me so sad and sometimes I wonder if the gap will be bridged.

I swing between wanting to listen, learn, and understand and feeling a bit rabid at the inexplicable fear of a majority culture. So I’m learning to ground myself. To stop for a while and step back. I know I can do this – that my own privilege allows me to turn of the news and curl up with my family – but I do it anyway, knowing that as someone with privilege, I can’t burn out.

Advent drawing 2015
Image courtesy of Corbin Hillam.

As we near Thanksgiving, I look over our Thankful Tree, hanging between our dining room and living room. Hiking, bath night, neighbors, PBS kids, cheese, community, walking to school have all made the list. I love having this tangible reminder of the tiny things I am so grateful for.

In so many ways, I’m glad Thanksgiving falls right before Advent begins. To celebrate with a feast of thankfulness (regardless of historical accuracy) seems to be the best way to prepare for this coming season when we celebrate the dark anticipation of hope come to this world.

Last year, I clung to Advent in the wake of attacks on Paris, of injustice after injustice happening here in America, as the refugee crises continued to swell. This year, things seem so much better in some ways and yet are still so bleak in others. And so, I will take time this Advent season to remember and pray. Perhaps it won’t be as public this year, but the habit of remembering and acknowledging in this darkness is so important.

This December, I want to light the candles and remember the way of peace, of hope, and of reconciliation.

How do you recognize Advent in the midst of Christmas celebrations?

For a beautiful series of community prayers around Advent, check out our Praying in Anticipation series from last year.