Last week, a person who is not a member of the Christian faith walked into my church office (see how I tried there to not make it sound like the start of an “A Priest, A Rabbi, and An Imam Walk Into a Bar” joke?).
Anyway, in he walked and seated himself in the chair across from mine, and asked: “Can you please explain what Advent is to someone who is not Christian? How is it different from Lent? Why do some churches decorate with purple and others– like yours– with blue?”
Given that he knows me pretty well, he also asked me to “keep it brief.” This, by the way, is a necessary caveat if one wishes for me to answer a theological and/or liturgical question and then have any time left for the rest of one’s day. It’s also a really good way to make me focus on what’s important in my answer. Probably my congregants should ask me to keep my sermons brief. Oh wait. They do.
So in any case, my brief answer went something like this:
First of all, I use blue because, while I do see many similarities between Lent and Advent, I want to communicate that they are very different seasons. The colors speak differently to me as well– purple in its richness communicates the majesty of God, while blue is a calming color that speaks to me of coldness and stillness, like a calm lake and the cold season. Ultimately, that’s a pretty aesthetic choice on the part of the pastor/church, as sound theological arguments can be made for either color. On to bigger things.
Like Lent (the six weeks before Easter), Advent (the four weeks before Christmas) is a time of preparation for a holy season in the church. However, at Easter time, it was traditional for people to join the church, and so the time leading up to it was a time of study, personal and communal reflection, and cleansing of sin so that one could participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus and enter into the body of the church (some folks go a bit overboard on the cleansing of sin bit, in my opinion). Christmas is not a typical time for people to join a church, and the time leading up to it does not have the same level of study and cleansing associated with it (I’ll say more about cleansing in a second). Both are seasons of anticipation; both are seasons of preparation. But one is a season where we are preparing for us to enter the story of what God is doing, and the other is a season when we prepare for God to enter into our story.
Advent is a time of preparation both for the celebration of the historical event of Jesus’ birth and entering into the world– whenever that birth took place, and no, we don’t all think it was on December 25 in the year 0000– and the preparation for the symbolic entry of Jesus into our lives in a spiritual sense now (depending on where an individual is at on their spiritual journey) and in some sort of second coming of Christ, about which people of Christian faith differ wildly in their interpretations.
Finally, Advent is about doing something different from the rest of the world. While everyone and everything around us pushes for more, more, more and faster, faster, faster, Advent is about less and about slowing down. In that sense it is a kind of cleansing time as well, but it’s a cleansing from distraction to realign priorities. It’s a cleansing that creates space (I suppose I could think about the cleansing of Lent in this way, but I usually don’t– and that’s probably a deeper theological and personal reflection than is warranted on an Advent Cheat Sheet). It teaches a discipline of waiting and patience, something our culture is not good at (and I’m definitely included in that!). We light one new candle a week. We open on little window on and advent calendar at a time. We eat one little chocolate a day, or defeat one level of Angry Birds at a time (never say that chocolate and video games can’t be spiritual…). Instead of having everything now, we practice what it means to slow down, wait, clean house, and focus, to prepare for something to come to us that changes us– and the world– for the better.
How would you describe this sacred time to someone from a different tradition or belief? How do you think I did?