Let's test your familiarity with the Christmas tradition we call Advent. So as not to leave any readers in the dark, I have provided the answers along with the questions.
When does Advent occur on the calendar?
Four weeks leading up to and including Christmas Sunday.
What are some of the symbols of Advent?
Wreath of evergreen.
Four to five candles.
Three purple. One pink. One white. In the UK, they are all red.
One additional candle lit each week until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
Extra Credit: What does each candle represent?
Hope - Peace - Joy - Love; Prophets - Bethlehem - Shepherds - Angels. Some traditions call the final white candle in the center of the wreath the Christ Candle.
First of all, I have to admit that I really like Advent. How much do I like it? Last year I wore a pair of purple dress pants on weeks 1,2, and 4. And I then purchased a pair of salmon/pink dress pants to have in time for week 3.
Now that we are all fully illuminated (see what I did there?)… a true and perhaps embarrassing story about my experience with Advent that might help explain why I have such a deep affinity for it. As a musician, I have always been extraordinarily busy at Christmas. All you musicians reading this will give me an Amen.
Every year when I was a kid, even before school music programming ramped up, my church put on a Christmas musical. The director’s youngest child was my age, and so these musicals were tailored to my age group every year, from early elementary school on. I had a strong memory, a good ear for music, and a flair for the dramatic, and by that I mean, I was “dramatically inclined." Because of this combination, I often (And by often I mean every single year) played the lead. Now, as a child who loved the arts this was a special gift. But that really did mean that I was very busy every year during the Advent season from as far back as I can remember.
In the days immediately following Thanksgiving, the aroma in my childhood home shifted suddenly from turkey and stuffing to bleach and highlighters- quite a pivot. My family would deep clean our house every year before setting up for Christmas, even down to mopping down the basement walls.
Picture little Kevin mopping away at the walls while my ever-efficient-saint-of-a-mother Jody would spend this time helping me memorize my lines so I could be off-book before December. This ritual is so vivid for me that I can see and smell those walls, that sponge mop, and that blue highlighter RIGHT. NOW.
Middle school and high school just compounded this with the addition of school musicals, choirs, bands, and handbell concerts all piled on top of our church traditions. It was a very, very busy, hectic, hustling season of the year.
My family had a small brass-framed, artificial-evergreen-adorned advent wreath atop our eat-in kitchen table. And we were SO HOLY that we didn’t just light the advent wreath on Sundays, but every night through the week too. We would take turns lighting the candles, leading the responsive readings, reciting the prayers, and singing the Christmas hymns. Everyone had a part, everyone participated.
For me, it was an invitation to slow down.
In those minutes at the table, I had the space to pause and to be present. The usual chaos felt like it was frozen or suspended in time around me, like an incredible slow-motion clip in a big budget movie. Picture the Matrix, only with candles around my childhood kitchen table.
You know that moment on Christmas Eve when we stand in a ring around the auditorium, candles lit and singing Silent Night? The peace in that moment is almost palpable. That was the first moment every year when all of my obligations at school and church had finally been fulfilled, and at long last, Christmas could begin, only to end just hours later in a flurry of ripped wrapping paper.
Well, it wasn't really the very first moment of peace in my Christmas season. Those occasions of every day Advent invoked the assurance that “all is calm and all is bright” right into the middle of my chaos. And they sustained me through that chaos.
That ring of evergreen would pull me into its life-giving orbit. Those purple and pink candles would burn so slowly for an entire season or sometimes surviving for two or three seasons, and they would slow me down too.
Advent wasn’t in a hurry. And for those precious few moments each night, neither were we.
This is the essence and beauty of advent, for me. And this is the invitation of Advent, to ALL of us. A call to gather around this circle of life and light, in the very midst of this season of hibernation and growing darkness. Slow down for THIS moment. Engage with Advent’s life and circle up around its Light.
It’s time to... settle in. Get into a comfortable position. Take a nice, deep, relaxed breath. Remember: We’re not in a hurry.
And let’s journey back... back to where it all started. Back to the beginning. Yes, that beginning, and also to John 1:1. Enter into that darkness that was over the surface of the deep. BEFORE “And God said…”
Read these words and let them take form in your mind.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. (Can you see them?)
…and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Through Him all things were made; Can you see that? Creation taking form?
Great Creatures of the Sea.
Every Winged Bird.
Little Creatures that Live Their Lives Along the Ground.
Can you see it?
Without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
I could just read those five verses every Sunday and be satisfied deep down in my soul.
In the beginning… a clear link to the genesis of Genesis. And in this beginning of beginnings was the Word. Logos.
There are two Greek words for “word” used in the New Testament: logos (λόγος) and rhema (ῥῆμα). John uses logos here, but uses rhema later in John 6:63 saying, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh provides no benefit; the rhema that I have spoken to you are spirit, and are life.”
Rhema as Spirit. Rhema is also often ascribed to words from God’s mouth like in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every rhema that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Or in Romans 10:17 “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the rhema of God.”
Logos is more often interpreted as written word or thought. It is also considered a masculine form or synonym of Sophia, the Greek personification of Wisdom. And when used with a definite article ("the") here in John, it is often understood as "The Divine Expression." Beautiful, right?
So while rhema represents the unseen word (Spirit or speech), logos is the visible Word.
So we have this personified “Divine Expression” present WITH God in the beginning. (Are you WITH me?) And this “Divine Expression” is ALSO straight-up BEING God. Both Was and With. And through this “Divine Expression” all of creation was spoken into existence. Through that Word. That Logos. When we read that “God said” in the Creation in Genesis, the Logos was present with-- and-at-the-same-time-being-- God. So it is no wonder that in the “Divine Expression” that created all life as we know it was life, or ζωή (zoe), and this life was light, φῶς (phos). These two symbols of advent: zoe and phos, life and light, are woven into the very fabric of our being from the beginning. They were spoken into us by and through the “Divine Expression” who incarnated the creation into being.
But the incarnation didn’t stop there.
John 1:14 “And [this] Word (itself) BECAME flesh and dwelt among us…”
That word for flesh there is σὰρξ (sarx). Flesh. Carnal. Human. Soft. Messy.
Yes, this articulated Word became sarx-y.
The incarnational Word. The Word of “in the beginning” and the Word of “it is finished”.
That Word σκηνόω (skēnoōs) with us. Skēnoō (skay-NAH-oh) means to tabernacle, to abide, to dwell
Tabernacle. We aren’t really as familiar with that word as much anymore either, are we?
A tabernacle is a moveable habitation, typically of light construction. Like a tent.
So what is John getting at here? He makes clear in verse 14 that this Word he has been speaking about is Jesus, and has always been Jesus. But why does that matter? Why does it matter that Jesus was with God and was God, or that he was in the beginning, or that he is like a tabernacle, a tent, that he is soft, or that he is moveable?
Well, because we are sarx-y. And yes, I made that word up. (And used it twice now.) Fleshy. Carnal. Human. And we get scared. Often, about not being in control. And we also fear that which we don’t personally understand. If something is outside of our own experience, our default tends to be fear.
We spend a lot of time and energy trying to understand. To nail it all down. And so did the people in the Bible. Because above all, they were people too. They weren’t “bad” people, just people who were simply people-ing.
So they struggled to trust solely in a knowledge of good and evil that was revealed by way of a relationship with the Word who walked with them in the garden in the cool of the day… in contrast to a word that was held by them directly… and so they grasped for a word of understanding they could hold (and hoard) within themselves.
And they struggled to trust in a Word that was literal firelight through the darkness of night in the Exodus from Egypt and instead turned to words carved in stone… and then added lots and lots and lots more words, in an attempt to nail it all down, parsing out every nuance of what those words meant… really meant… really, really meant.
Don’t we do that? We say, “Clearly the Bible says...” Or "Clearly the Bible doesn’t say…" We hang onto thoughts of how enlightened we are. By our defensiveness in proving our opinions, we show that we want to be understood. WE WANT TO BE RIGHT. WE WANT TO WIN. We want absolute assurance that we can confirm and control.
We aren’t that different than the people in the Garden. Knowledge. Logos-es of our own. Logos-es that we can pin down. Immovable. Immutable.
Something breaks when love becomes law.
When judges become kings.
When tents become temples.
When what was meant to move is cemented.
When what was meant as a journey with
is swapped for somewhere you must go… or can’t go.
When the living Word is exchanged for mere words. Words that are static. And stoic.
You can’t dance with a statue.
And we weren’t meant to.
This is why this all matters.
Jesus is the Word that became… sarx-y. Soft. And Jesus is the Word that skēnoōses and tabernacles with us. He showed up in flesh, and he came with a sleeping bag and a bag of trail mix. Ready for adventure.
Adventure comes from the same root word as advent.
ADVENIRE: to come
ADVENTURUS: (meaning) about to happen
And I learned that while hiking with my good friend Matt Kistler this fall. Thanks, Matt. For the wisdom and the words and the walking. Because we were always meant to journey with The Word just like that. Like a day with a friend hiking at Hibernia. All of John’s beautiful poetry is pointing to this: how wholly holy and wholly human he is. Was and with again. He is God and He is with us. Immanuel. He became sarx-y so he could skēnoōs with us. So he could move closer to us. Abide with us. To go where we go.
Did you see him move toward the disciples? In those days, Hebrew boys went to temple school. Those that made the cut continued on to become Pharisees and those that didn’t learned a trade like shepherding, carpentry, or fishing. Yet, those unchosen by the Temple were the very ones chosen by the One-who-tabernacled. From the first proclamation to the shepherds (camping themselves) on the hills outside Bethlehem to the twelve disciples who followed him.
And what about when he moved toward the Samaritan woman at the well? The written word strictly forbade it on multiple levels, but that didn’t stop The Word. She couldn’t step foot in the temple, so the Tabernacle stepped foot into her world. The Word always makes a way.
Did you see Him move toward the paralytic man, a man who himself couldn’t move? And where was that man stuck? At the pool of Bethesda “which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.” It is believed that John calls this number 5 out so specifically because it was representative of the 5 books of the law. And what happens when Love becomes law? Something breaks. And it is usually a person or a people. But what did Love do? He moved toward him and healed him. And when did he do it? On the sabbath. I’m pretty sure their word had some very specific things to say about that. And what did The Word say about that? He said, “Pick up your mat and walk.” And when pressed about working on the sabbath he threw God right under their bus too and said, “My Father is always working, just as I too am working.” Clarifying that Jesus isn’t a different word than the Father. Remember: the Word WAS God. So they both said, “Pick up your mat and walk.” And since a mat is a place of rest, they might as well have said, “Pick up your sabbath rest and take it with you.”
Can you see it? Can you see the Word moving? Can you see the visible Logos clarifying what the invisible Rhema was saying all along?
When the hand of the Law was drawn back and ready to cast stones, Love stretched down and drew in the sand. And found a way to bring life to a woman standing before a death sentence.
He is a way to every one of us. After moving towards each of the disciples to wash their feet, even Judas, Thomas asked “How can we know the way?”
Jesus answers, and in my mind he is smiling, “I am the Way.” I am the Way to you… and you… and you. I am the Way to you in the back. And you over there on the side. And to everyone reading these words.
I can hear Jesus saying with his life, “I am the Way to those who ‘didn’t make the cut’, the discounted and discredited. I am the Way to the outcast among outcasts in Samaria, at the well in the noonday sun. I am the Way to those who feel trapped by systems of oppression and stones are drawn. Beloved, I am familiar with the fringe. I have a tent pitched there tonight and my trail mix is always open to you. I am the Way when you feel broken. (Maybe even by the church.) And I am the Way on a Monday as much as I am the Way on Sunday. I AM the PRINCE OF PEACE. I AM your Sabbath.”
What if all along the sabbath rest wasn’t what we did or didn’t do, but whom we did or didn’t do it with? Or in other words, the Sabbath might be about relationship. It is my experience that experience is the only thing that can MEANINGFULLY move the needle in our lives. Experience is the thing that can really bring about TRUE change.
That is the power of the centered set. Where a bounded set has a list of what you must do and can never do, the centered set says, "Spend time with Immanuel."
Spend time with God with us.
The focus isn’t what you do. If it is, we’ve already lost. We can never will ourselves to be perfect. Trust me, I’ve tried.
It is whom you do it with.
Because even repentance comes from God's kindness. It doesn’t come from a list of rules or from communal shame. Though this world sure has tried that on me, and I’m guessing on a lot of you too, readers. But spending time with God With Us… with God's kindness and love… Because I don’t know about y’all, but that’s what I feel when I’m in Their Presence: Love.
And THAT changes you. THAT moves the needle.
How many of you have ever been burned by the church?
So why are we here?
When asked why Advent means so much to him, Rob Bell replied,
"…because cynicism is the new religion of our world. whatever it is, this religion teaches that it isn’t as good as it seems. it will let you down. it will betray you. That institution? That church? That politician? That authority figure? They’ll all let you down. Whatever you do, don’t get your hopes up. Whatever you think it is, whatever it appears to be, it will burn you, just give it time.
"Advent confronts this corrosion of the heart with the insistence that God has not abandoned the world, hope is real and something is coming. Advent charges into the temple of cynicism with a whip of hope, overturning the tables of despair, driving out the priests of that jaded cult, announcing there’s a new day and it’s not like the one that came before it. 'the not yet will be worth it,' advent whispers in the dark."
So if you find yourself today being left out or overlooked, like the disciples, or being left out because of how you looked, or who you love, or where you live, like the Samaritan woman at the well, Have hope. And if you’ve been hurt by the law like the paralytic man or the woman Christ saved from stoning, Have hope. Even in the darkest night, the dark is not dark to Jesus. (Even when it’s dark at 5 o’clock.) For “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness HAS NOT (and never will) overcome it.”
That’s one reason we light candles. Candles for hope, peace, joy and love.
Advent is about slowing down and being mindful in the waiting, let's try it out as I conclude:
Take a deep breath and come into your body. Feel your weight in the chair, feel it supporting you. Feel your feet on the ground. Feel your breath coming in and going out.
Take another deep breath and focus inward. Into your heart/ soul.
We are going to ask God some questions now. And if, like me, you sometimes struggle to hear God’s words of Love for you, think of someone you love. And ask God what Their word is for them, then dare to accept those words for yourself as well.
What is Your word of HOPE for me today?
What is Your word of PEACE for me today?
What is Your word of JOY for me today?
What is Your word of LOVE for me today?
Now take a third deep breath and come into a space of gratitude.
As you celebrate the Advent of Jesus this year and every year, may you hear the rhema of God as you listen to the words of the story. And may it bring hope, peace, love and joy to you.