The excitement of decorating a tree and the stress of buying gifts have become traditions of Christmastime. Today, churches and families around the world will begin observation of the four-week season of Advent, leading up to Christmas day, to remember and honor the reason for the season — the birth of Jesus.
Every church has its own Advent traditions, but most today will display an Advent wreath — four candles to represent the four Sundays before Christmas in a circle of evergreens. Each week a candle is lit as part of the service.
At St. John’s UMC in Coal Township, the congregation will start the Advent season with the hanging of the greens and decoration of the church. Pastor Karyn Fisher said she loves to include volunteers from the congregation to explain the symbolism of the objects of Advent.
The use of evergreens is prominent in the celebration because Fisher said evergreens are alive year round, making them a symbol of eternal life.
A Nativity scene on display at the beginning of Advent, but it’s missing the most important piece. Because Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, Fisher said the baby Jesus figure is not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve.
Every year, Fisher helps choose a young child from the congregation for the honor of placing the baby Jesus in the manger.
The four weeks of Advent are worked into weekly Bible study, Fisher said. This year the group will read “The Redemption of Scrooge” and relate it to the season.
“The title of the first chapter is ‘Bah humbug,’ and it’s comparing what Scrooge values in terms of his economy, the money and the greed, and what God values,” Fisher explained. “The last three weeks look at the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future and what that means for us in Christ.”
Some celebrate Advent as the prelude to the birth of Christ, but Fisher sees it a bit differently. She said, “Advent really recognizes the truth that Christ is coming back and that we are still waiting. Even though he was born as a baby, we are still waiting for Jesus to come.”
Advent means an arrival, coming into view, she explained. It’s typically observed in commemoration of the first coming of Christ to the world, but another definition would be the
“second coming,” she said.
“Yes, Jesus came as a baby, but that already happened. So if we’re celebrating Advent, what are we really looking forward to if not the second coming?” she asked.
The celebration of Advent puts a biblical focus back into the Christmas season, according to Fisher.
“I think it’s important because it reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas, that our focus is not to be on shopping or presents or Santa Claus for that matter. Our focus is supposed to be on Jesus, the celebration of God with us, God coming into the world, and it’s easy to get distracted.
As a pastor, she said she has a responsibility to “keep Christ in Christmas.” She reminds her congregation to take a moment every Sunday and remember the real reason they celebrate Christmas.
Father Martin Kobos, of Mother Cabrini, Shamokin, shared similar sentiments about the importance of churches celebrating Advent.
“With so much commercialism going on before Christmas, Jesus is the reason of the season, so we try to be attentive to the spiritual preparation of meditation on what does the birth of our savior mean,” Kobos said.
It’s important to keep the holiday in perspective and remember what we are celebrating, he said. During today’s Mass, the first candle of the Advent wreath will be lit and a meditation booklet given to parishioners.
Kobos said the booklet is “a lovely donation” given by a parishioner in memory of his late wife, making it a “wonderful blessing” for the church during the holiday season. The booklet encourages parishioners to make a spiritual Advent through short meditations on scriptures or particular Feast Days.
Kobos created a type-up sheet available in the church bulletins he called “something to post on your refrigerator.” It lists simple ways of changing attitudes, minds and hearts during of Advent and “to be more generously open of what it means that God was born among us.”
“I tell people, just for Advent, push aside coupons and pictures of kids and post this on your refrigerator,” said Kobos.
Kobos said with that little bit of reflection, “Christmas becomes a much deeper celebration than just tinsel, bright lights and gifts under the tree.”
“It really touches the heart because that’s the deepest celebration, not just the superficial stuff, but the core of who we are as people,” he explained.