I want to start this series with the one tradition that has had the greatest impact on my heart personally, as well as on our family at Christmastime: Advent.
This is the third year that we have done something to observe Advent as a family. Before that, I honestly didn't even really know what Advent was. I did not grow up observing Advent, or at least we didn't call it that. I have attended mostly Baptist churches all my life...and I absolutely love my church and my church family. But one thing our faith community doesn't really observe is Advent, at least not in the liturgical sense.
Advent is a kind of liturgy.
Liturgy. That word intrigues me.
I like how Mark Buchanan describes liturgy in his book, The Rest of God, and I can really relate to the church experiences he describes at the beginning here:
(I highly recommend reading this entire book, by the way…I am only giving a little excerpt here, but the whole thing is so so so good)
"I was converted within a Low Church tradition, where the building's walls are stark, the music simple, the prayers clumsy and direct, made up as you pray them. I have only ever belonged to that tradition. And so early on I picked up the tradition's historic suspicion of High Church, where God is approached through a sometimes elaborate system of symbol and ritual--robes and candles and prayer books and lectionaries--and almost everything scripted.
That scripting is liturgy.
Yet over time I began to realize that the Low Church is just as bound by liturgy as any church, and maybe more so because we think we’re not. The Low Church enshrines—makes liturgy of—austerity, spontaneity, informality. And we have our unwritten but nonetheless rigorously observed codes and protocols. We love our traditions, even our rigmarole, every bit as much as the next guy, only ours is earthy, rustic, folksy.
So I changed my mind about liturgy. It certainly can become dull and rote, but so can anything—water polo, rose gardening, kite flying, even lovemaking. Even fly-fishing. Just as often, though, maybe more so, liturgy can enrich these things. At its best, liturgy comprises the gestures by which we honor transcendent reality. It helps us give concrete expression to deepest convictions. It gives us choreography for things unseen and allows us to brush heaven among shades of earth.
…What liturgy accomplishes is nothing short of astonishing: It breaks open the transcendent within the ordinary and the everyday. It lets us glimpse the deeper reality—the timeless things, the universal ones, the things above—within this particular instance of it.
…Liturgy is a repertoire of possible ways—not the only way, or even the best way, but at least some way—to set what we know in motion. It lets us render thinking into doing, to pour our knowledge through our limbs.”
Advent is a kind of liturgy. It’s a way to “honor transcendent reality” and “set what we know in motion.” It gives us a concrete way to recognize and honor deep truths, to "pour our knowledge through our limbs" at Christmas.
It comes from the Latin.
It means "coming."
...This, this, is the love story that's been coming for you since the beginning.
It is possible for you to miss it.
To brush past it, to rush through it, to not see how it comes for you up over the edges of everything, quiet and unassuming and miraculous--how every page of the Word has been writing it, reaching for you, coming for you. And you could wake on Christmas only to grasp that you never took the whole of the Gift, the wide expanse of grace. So now we pause. Still. Ponder. Hush. Wait. Each day of Advent, He gives you the gift of time, so you have time to be still and wait.
Wait for the coming of the God in the manger who makes Himself bread for us near starved.
For the Savior in swaddlings who makes Himself the robe of righteousness for us worn out.
For Jesus, who makes precisely what none of us can but all of us want: Christmas."
I love the purpose and intention of Advent: to slow and still and simply remember Jesus…to focus our hearts…to give us a concrete expression of our deep convictions.
So even though our faith community doesn’t really observe Advent, we decided to give it a try as a family and started observing it in our own simple way. I'll admit, we are clumsy and imperfect, inconsistent and just a plain mess some days…and I’m sure we don’t do it the “right” way (is there even such a thing as the “right” way?). But over the past three Christmases we have found a rhythm to Advent that works for our family. And just this simple act of slowing down to intentionally read from God’s Word and focus our hearts on Jesus every day, it has honestly made the biggest impact on our hearts and our family during this otherwise crazy busy season.
So today I'm sharing how we do Advent. This is not the only way, or the best way, but just our one little humble way of observing Christmas as more than just going and doing, but as the still and quiet waiting for our Savior…our Savior who has always been coming for us…who came as a baby in a manger, small and humble…who came as a carpenter with healing in His hands and truth in His every breath…who came as a Lamb pierced and slaughtered for our sins, giving His life in my place, in your place…who came as a Victor rising from the grave, defeating death, conquering hell, and giving us hope and life and peace…our Savior who is yet to come again, mighty and triumphant, our King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
We observe Advent as a way to slow down and take time to remember: He has come, and He is coming!
WHAT WE USE for our Family Advent Tradition:
Our Bible. Nothing beats the Word of God. If you use nothing else, if you do nothing else, just simply open His Word every day and read a couple of verses…it will change you, it will change your family. I know. Because it has changed me, it has changed us.
This book: Unwrapping the Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp
I cannot recommend this book enough. I know there are a ton of WONDERFUL Advent resources out there (and I would LOVE to hear what your family uses for Advent! Please comment and share if you know of another great resource!). But this book has definitely become our favorite. The stories are purposeful and meaningful, the questions and activities each day always spur the best conversations, and I usually end up crying as we read it each day. I love how it begins at the very beginning and then touches on stories throughout the entire family tree of Jesus…all leading up to His coming. It is just an absolutely beautiful book.
A “Cradle to Cross” Wreath from JoyWares.com
I ordered this Advent wreath last year, and it has quickly become one of my most favorite things. Every day we add a candle and light them as we do our Advent story. There’s just something about lighting a candle…about a light burning bright as we read and talk about the truth of God’s Word. Plus, I kinda have a thing for candles, they just make my soul smile ;)
Advent ornaments from Day Spring:
These ornaments come as a set of 25 and go along with Ann Voskamp’s Advent books, The Greatest Gift and Unwrapping the Greatest Gift. She also offers a free printable version (which is what we used the first year we started this), or you can order actual coordinating ornaments from DaySpring. (I was super blessed to be gifted this set last Christmas, and I just love them so much).
Our Jesse Tree:
We use just a small, slender tree that sits in the corner of our dining room for our “Jesse Tree,” but you could use just about anything as a tree for Advent. This tree holds all of our ornaments that go along with the devotionals throughout the month.
Free resources from TheGreatestChristmas.com:
There are banners and coloring pages and ornaments and gift tags and so much more, all free and printable! We particularly love using the “Night Before Advent” supplies to kick off our Advent season the evening before December 1st.
….or envelopes, or socks, or whatever we decide to use, along with little goodies to go in each bag (usually chocolates or candy canes).
WHAT WE DO:
On the night before Advent:
On November 30th we have our “Night Before Advent” party. (This is one place where we probably stray a little from how/when most churches observe Advent. I realize that Advent doesn’t always actually begin on December 1st, it begins (or so I have discovered as I have read and learned about it) on the Sunday nearest November 30th, and so the date it actually begins changes each year. But since we are just observing it as a family, and since we are using an Advent devotional that begins on December 1st, we have our “Night Before Advent” party on November 30th. It just works for us.
I use the resources and ideas from thegreatestchristmas.com. We prepare our Advent bags (we put a couple of pieces of candy and the ornament for each day in the coordinating Advent bag or envelope), make hot cocoa and cookies, and we get everything ready for the season. We end the evening by reading Ann’s poem “The Night Before Advent” and praying together.
Every day December 1-25:
(we usually try to do our daily Advent after dinner each evening)
- The girls open up the Advent bag/envelope for that day and hang the ornament on our “Jesse tree” (we actually use two versions of the ornaments, that way they each get to hang an ornament every day)
- We light the candles on our Advent wreath. Each day we add a candle. This year we are using this countdown taper candle (which I ordered from Amazon) for the current day, and then just some tea light candles for the other days.
- Then Mark reads from the Bible, the verses that tell the story that we are focusing on that night.
- Then I usually read the story from Unwrapping the Greatest Gift…although, sometimes Lilly asks to read it, sometimes Mark reads it (Emma is our quiet soul who is perfectly fine just listening to others read)…but usually I get to read it (which is totally fine by me, I love it so much). After we read the story, there are some questions to discuss and even a family activity to do together (sometimes we do the activity, sometimes we don’t…because life.) The discussions we have had around our dinner table at Christmastime have been some of the best, most teachable and wonderful moments these past couple of years. (Of course, they also include the occasional argument between sisters, someone not paying attention, and often involve someone “cutting the cheese” at some point which erupts into giggles…but hey, that’s just real life.)
- We always end our time by praying together. We share our prayer requests (which lately have been predominately full of homework and school woes, but sometimes surprise me with glimpses of deeper cares and concerns). Then we hold hands and anyone who wants to pray gets to pray.
And that's it. Our little Advent tradition. It takes us all of about 15-20 mintues every night, but it is my most favorite part of the day. I LOVE this time we spend together, and I know that all these little moments are adding up and making a lasting impact on all of our hearts.
Observing Advent, even with how very imperfect and messy we are at it, has changed the way we experience Christmas. It is, hands-down, the one tradition that has made the biggest difference for us. And if I could only do one thing with our family at Christmas, I would do this.
How do you observe Advent? If your family is looking for a way to slow down and focus on Jesus this Christmas, maybe observing Advent, even if it’s imperfect and messy, is a good place to start? Maybe it will change your Christmas and your family the way it has changed ours…this slow and quiet waiting for our Savior.