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A Season of Unity

In the wake of an incredibly trying and difficult year, the division and lament of 2020 have undoubtedly cut through your congregation in some form or fashion. 2020 may be coming to a close, but the lasting effects will linger for months – perhaps years – to come.

How then can you forge unity, reconciliation, and hope among your congregants in the waning weeks of this challenging year? The answer may lie in the season of Advent.

The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word Adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival.” When heard today, we typically associate the term with an “Advent calendar,” a holiday-themed decoration designed to count the remaining days until Christmas.

However, Advent holds a much deeper and richer resonance than is typically afforded in its use as a Christmas calendar for children.

Church historians aren’t exactly sure how and when the tradition of Advent developed and formally became associated with the birth of Jesus. But, similar to Lent in relation to Easter, Advent eventually cemented itself as a season of preparation in the lead-up to Christmas.

And, like turning a multi-faceted jewel to marvel at the gem’s beauty from different angles, exploring the heart of Advent can help you and your congregation better appreciate the ways in which this ancient story can speak to our world today.

The True Story of Christmas

While Nativity scenes and joyful holiday carols tend to paint the first Christmas as a delightful and warm-hearted experience for all involved, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

For starters, at the time of the angel’s surprise visit to Mary, the Jewish people were in a horrible spot. During the four-hundred year gap between the Old and New Testaments, the tiny nation of Israel had been conquered and occupied by no less than six power-hungry empires. For many, it appeared as if Yahweh had abandoned them.

The Gospel of Matthew opens by telling us that Caesar Augustus – the supreme leader of the Roman Empire – issued a decree that requires all people under his reign to return to their hometowns to participate in a census. In those days, a census was less about tabulating population growth and more about establishing more accurate tax records.

Enter Mary and Joseph, two betrothed teenagers living in the tiny town of Nazareth. However, since Joseph was originally from Bethlehem, he’d have to make the 80-mile journey from Nazareth to his hometown for the census. Mary, who at this point is probably in the final trimester of her pregnancy, accompanies Joseph on the multi-day trek.

Upon arrival at Bethlehem, they find the city bursting at the seams with fellow travelers and sojourners. Try as they might, the distressed couple can’t find a place to spend the night. It’s likely that Mary is already feeling the pangs of labor. An apologetic innkeeper offers them a stay in his inn’s stables. In those days, stables were often located in the lower floors of a building or in caves.

Let’s try to hear this story for the first time. We can become so familiar with the way a story is told that we no longer feel its power. On paper, the tale of Mary and Joseph is not one that appears to be barreling toward a happy ending.

Imagine yourself in their shoes. Your tiny little nation has been traded back and forth between various superpowers for centuries and is currently occupied by one of the largest empires the world has ever seen, which is led by a king who doesn’t recognize your God. You’ve traveled nearly 100 miles across difficult terrain to pay taxes so this king can continue to conquer foreign lands in the name of his pagan gods. Into all this geopolitical strife, you’re bringing a child – a child whose parentage appears supernatural.

And that child is on its way right now, and you’re in an underground stable with little light and no modern medicine. The stench of animal sweat and manure fills your nostrils, and the reality is sinking in that giving birth is a messy ordeal. The odds don’t appear to be in your favor.

But, it’s into this scary, uncertain, and complicated moment that the Light of the World and the Hope of All Nations decides to enter into our reality.

The Healing Power of Advent

The four Advent Sundays are traditionally divided into four themes. The first week is centered around hope (or promise), the second week is focused on preparation (or waiting), the third week is all about peace (or joy), and the fourth and final week is reserved for love (or adoration).

As we reflect on the story and circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth, we can begin to draw parallels between the world of the First Century and our world today.

Many of us feel like exiles in our own culture, and if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we’re at the mercy of forces outside of our control. Between sickness, social upheaval, economic devastation, and political division, you probably won’t find anyone who doesn’t think the world could use a little more hope, patience, peace, and love.

One of the beautiful aspects of Advent is that it firmly acknowledges the pain and brokenness in the world. And, perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t pretend to offer easy answers about why bad things happen. Advent begins in the dark, in a season of lack, discomfort, and anguish. It’s easy for us to want to skip to the “happy” parts of the Christmas story – the cute baby, the angels, and the Wise Men’s gifts – but to do so without acknowledging the difficult parts does those looking to this story for hope a huge disservice.

It’s no coincidence that Christmas Day is preceded by the Winter Solstice on December 21st. So, perhaps it’s more than fitting that three days after the darkest day of the year, Christians gather to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior. And it’s within this reality that we discover the evocative tension of Advent: The adoration of Jesus’s arrival and the hope of His return.

Bringing Advent Home

Advent always begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas (November 29th for 2020), and there are a number of ways you can help your congregation prepare their hearts for the Advent experience.

For starters, make room for lament. 2020 has brought more than its fair share of unique challenges, and they’ve likely affected members of your congregation in different ways. Therefore, it’s vital to create space for mourning – for jobs, lives, and relationships lost and transformed.

Additionally, the accelerated spread of the pandemic may continue to keep some of your more vulnerable and at-risk congregants away from holiday-related festivities and gatherings. But, more than ever, the Advent season is a perfect opportunity to pour blessings upon those who feel isolated and lonely. Maybe you could organize a group of social-distancing carolers to bring some Christmas cheer to older members of your congregation. Or you could prep gift baskets for the widows and widowers who might be spending a particularly lonely Christmas if they’re unable to gather with family this year.

In addition to your end-of-year giving campaigns, you could also establish a benevolence fund to bless families who may have lost jobs or loved ones in the past year. But no matter how you and your staff choose to observe Advent, it’s vital you look for opportunities to connect the entire congregation to the greater story of the season.

Because, at the end of the day, Advent is about recognizing God’s faithfulness in spite of our limited perspective on world events. It’s so much more than a cute Nativity set. It’s about acknowledging the promises God kept in the past to give us hope for the promises yet to be fulfilled in the future.

Though Advent may look and feel a little different this year, it may be the perfect opportunity to re-introduce your congregation to the story of Jesus’s birth in a brand new way. And walking your congregation through the four tenets of the season – hope, patience, peace, and love – may be enough to change the world, even in 2020.