Advent Church: Rhythms Make Us Wait for God
Every Christmas Eve throughout childhood until I left home, my family clicked through the same ritual. Timing our departure so he could create the maximum challenge and adrenaline, my dad would rush (with me tagging along to watch the insanity) to Cox’s department store where he would commence his gift shopping for my mom only an hour before the store’s early four o'clock closing. Dad would dash from clerk to clerk, purchasing a bottle of Estée Lauder perfume, a piece of jewelry, an evening gown or dress. He would snatch random knickknacks as he rushed through the aisles for impulse buys and loot to fill mom’s stocking. Then Dad would hurry with his teetering stack of packages to the gift-wrapping department where those beleaguered women chuckled at his antics and congratulated him with Christmas cheer as they wrapped the boxes in crisp, glossy white paper adorned with green, red, and gold ribbon.
When we returned home, we’d load up the rest of the family in the car and make our rounds delivering baked goods and gifts to neighbors and church friends. Finishing this energetic activity, we would enjoy a light dinner and sit around our Christmas tree where each person was allowed to open one gift. For my sister and me, the gift was always pajamas. Even as a college student—flannel pants and a long sleeve T-shirt. Every single year. To conclude the evening, we always watched Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby tap their way through White Christmas.
White Christmas could never hold my dad’s attention, however—without fail, after the movie cued, he would fall asleep. Without fail, we’d mock dad’s chainsaw snores. Without fail, our hackling would eventually escalate until (without fail) dad would jolt awake and say, What? What? I’m just resting my eyes. Eventually we’d finish the movie and, for that one night, leave the Christmas tree lit through the sleeping hours. This was our routine. Every Christmas Eve.
Rituals and Rhythms Form a Life
Though I’m 43, with two boys and our own traditions, whenever I rehearse these rituals from childhood, I discover they are not mere memories but grounding for my life. They have taught me foundational truths. Love. Belonging. Hope. Generosity. Laughter. These are not theoretical concepts. They are soul-truths woven into the man I am.
As an adolescent, I couldn’t have understood how rushing to Cox’s with a dad so eager to overwhelm his wife with gifts would form me as a man with a strong urge to be generous. I couldn’t have comprehended how sharing these simple familiar rhythms would help to shape who I am as a husband, father, or friend. Years ago, our family’s Christmas Eve practices seemed mundane. They were meaningful but repetitive and ordinary. Since, I’ve discovered that these common, habitual rituals also formed me into a particular way of life that I now, decades later, call my own.
Church Rituals and Rhythms Form our Lives
So much of our life in the Church strikes us as monotonous and plain. We read our Scriptures. We say our prayers. We gather around Jesus’ Table. We give our money. With all this, sometimes we encounter spiritual gravity, and sometimes the whole shebang seems limp and cold. At times, the church’s failures or blind spots disillusion us. In church, sometimes we find friendship, and sometimes church is the loneliest place we know. Sometimes our spiritual leaders inspire us, and sometimes they grieve us. Sometimes our life within the church energizes us while sometimes we can only yawn or cringe and push one foot in front of the other.
Wherever we find ourselves in our current experience with the church, I’ve come to believe that our feelings in this immediate moment matter far less than we might think. It’s good to have our heart warmed and our soul enlivened. It’s good to be embraced by rich friendship. However, the work God does often winds a long and tedious way. The rhythms, the tedious spiritual practices, will—over the many years and if we plod along in faith—form us into people who know God and love God.
Individually and through Church, Advent Forms our Lives
One of the particular ways Advent forms us is by standing in our way. Our culture prods us to sprint toward Christmas, but Advent insists we wait. Advent says Not yet. Hold back. Advent asks this of us every single year. Whether we are spiritually invigorated or experience only lackluster faith, Advent pulls us all into the same room every Sunday and says, Hold on. You need to sit a while. And sit a while with others. You need to pay attention. You need to watch for God and put your hope in God.
Practiced within the Church, Advent reminds us that we wait for God to act not only for our individual needs but for the healing of the entire world. In the Church, we remember that God’s work, slow as it may be, is not only about theological propositions or personal morals but about concrete communities, about our fractured relationships, about the formation of a people who are learning how to patiently live in the story of God.
Walking these paths together over the long years, we will in time become a people who actually know how to pay attention, how to watch, how to be longsuffering and generous, and how to hold onto faith when everything threatens to rip it from us. I believe these rituals and rhythms, as we practice them together year after year, will make us Advent people, whether or not we’ve been aware of this remarkable transformation along the way.
It’s not a secret: sometimes it’s hard to find Jesus in church. Some of us have gotten used to the routine and the way things unfold in our weekly church services, and we just can’t seem to move beyond going through the motions. Others of us have been disappointed or we’ve become disenchanted, and we’ve decided to look for Jesus outside the church building. Others have gotten bored with the whole thing, and no longer expect to find Jesus in either the church or the Church. And then, there are those of us who find great comfort and deep meaning in both the church building and the Church of God.
Jesus built the church on Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of Living God. Jesus pronounced that not even the gates of hell would prevail against it. Christ’s grace is at work in the church. And in the Church. In Advent Church, let’s celebrate the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and let the Church say, “Amen.”