Happy new year, people! The church year officially started yesterday, the first Sunday of Advent. I spent the whole day driving cross-country in the car, which was hardly conducive to fostering peace and good will (ahem!). But today I am resolved to do better.
And by my side this first week of Advent is Sybil MacBeth‘s beautifully designed new book, The Season of the Nativity. It’s chock-full of ideas anyone can implement to help December be less enervating with all the shopping/wrapping/standing in line/[insert your holiday headache here]. . . and more spiritual.
RNS: You call yourself “an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany extremist.” What does that mean?
Sybil MacBeth: I love Advent for many reasons. As the starting gate for the church year, it invites us to hunker down, to go inward, to watch, to wait, and to prepare for receiving Jesus in our hearts in a new way. Advent prepares us for Christmas, but also teaches us how to live the whole rest of the year as watchful, patient, but fully engaged participants in the coming of a new kingdom under Jesus Christ. The vocabulary of Advent is full of the juicy paradoxes we live with all year long—darkness and light, sorrow and joy, despair and hope, fear and faith….
In the almost four weeks before Christmas I have a grab bag of daily practices—both playful and prayerful–to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, to tell me “Slow down, not yet.” I “flaunt” purple, the color of royalty, the liturgical color for Advent. (Some people use blue.) NO red and green, NO Christmas trees, NO Santas appear in my house before at least December 20. I guess this is extreme.
I think the whole Nativity Season—Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany– gets short shrift in our culture. Christians have put so much emphasis on Jesus’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection that we forget the mystery of his mere existence on earth at all. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) is what we call the Incarnation. God made flesh. When we see Jesus we get a direct hit. Bingo! This is what God is like.
RNS: What are a few simple ways that people who have never kept the season of Advent before can observe the days and get more excited about the meaning of Christmas?
SM: Do something every day of Advent—even if it’s quick and small.
- My favorite Advent practice is creating an Advent calendar. Start with a blank calendar template for November 30 to December 24. Each day write/draw/doodle in the space for the day. Write a person’s name. Pray for him or her with words or just with strokes of your pen and colored markers or pencils. Or write an Advent word and meditate on it. This is an activity for both adults and children. The calendar grows and becomes more colorful each day. Here is the link to some past examples and some downloadable Advent calendar templates.
Delay the onset of Christmas. Instead of putting up a tree on Thanksgiving weekend, wait until at least December 15. If you can’t wait, leave the tree bare or cover it with purple or white lights. Or treat it like an Advent calendar: have each person in the family hang one or two ornaments each day until Christmas.
- Learn a new Advent word each day. Look at Isaiah 60-61 and Matthew 3. Write a new word each day on a colorful sticky note and post it on a wall. By Christmas day, there will be a collage of twenty-four powerful words—a stained-glass-like dictionary.
RNS: You’re the person who first taught me to doodle my prayers, with your book Praying in Color. How does that kind of visual focus play into the frameworks you’re recommending for people as they go through the Advent and Christmas seasons?
SM: The Season of the Nativity is not just about words and beliefs, it is about inviting the mystery of Jesus to permeate every part of us. Doodling, drawing, singing, moving, watching, sitting in silence…engage the whole person—head, heart, body, and spirit.
RNS: Finally – you talk in the book about how depressing it is that people seem to end their Christmas celebrations on December 25. By the very next day they’ve kicked their trees to the curb. What are some things we can do to spread the joy all through the traditional “twelve days of Christmas,” all the way through January 5?
- Say “Merry Christmas” every day through January 5.
- Plan some simple way each day for the whole family to celebrate. Write your intended activity on the calendar: Make popcorn after dinner; take a walk together; sleep under the tree; kids cook dinner….
- Keep the tree and all of your decorations up through January 6. January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany (“shining forth”), the day the Wise Men come from far away places, an indication that Jesus and his kingdom will go viral.