26 Ideas for Advent (with Sybil MacBeth)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
Image from Sybil MacBeth, "The Season of the Nativity" 

Image from Sybil MacBeth, "The Season of the Nativity" 

Advent is a season of anticipation, of holy waiting. It is a waiting characterized not by idleness or even contented peace, but by prophetic yieldedness and active hope. Perhaps more than any other season in the Christian calendar, Advent acknowledges the already-and-not-yet nature of the Kingdom of God. In remembering the anticipation of Christ’s first coming, we acknowledge and nurture our anticipation of Christ’s second coming. Advent is a season for the prophets, for the dreamers, for the poets. A great light has shown, but there is still so much darkness to pierce, so much gloom to overcome. 

 Advent should be a season of surprises too, of God showing up when and where we least expect Emmanuel: in a womb, in a barn, as a poor minority in an oppressive empire, at the soup kitchen, at that church service you resisted attending, in that family member with whom you disagree, in every corner of this world from Ferguson, Missouri, to Palestine, to your kitchen. It a season to slow down and pay attention, to listen to the prophets, to look for God in God’s distressing disguises. 

To help us do this, I’ve compiled a list of 26 ideas for Advent 2014, and this year I’ve enlisted the help of Sybil MacBeth, author of Praying in Color and The Season of the Nativity, from which several of these ideas are drawn. My goal was to mix family-friendly activities with ideas for contemplation, giving, and prophetic action in response to injustice. Next week I will launch an Advent series here and on social media with the theme "Pay Attention." The focus will be on the the prophetic witness that preceded the first Advent and that still persists today. (See details below.) Please feel free to leave your own ideas in the comment section so we can make this an even better resource for all. 

5 Questions to Ask Yourself…

1.    When I wake up on Christmas morning, how will I be different? How do I hope the meditations and practices of the season will shape me? 

2.    How can I prepare myself, my home, and my family for the arrival of Jesus in a way that nurtures a spirit of anticipation and hope? 

3.    Have I left enough space in the busy holiday season to pay attention, to listen, to wait, and to be surprised? What practical steps can I take to both guard those quiet moments but also embrace divine interruptions? 

4.    Consider the effects of light. It can warm and it can guide, but it can also expose and surprise. What does light in the darkness mean for the world? What does it mean for my life in this season? 

5.    What does it mean to listen to the prophets in this season—not just the prophets of old, but the prophets of today? Who is crying out for justice and peace from the margins, and what will I do to heed their calls? 

5 Meditations….

1. Isaiah 60, Isaiah 7:14/ “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”/ Collect for the First Sunday of Advent, Book of Common Prayer 

2. Isaiah 35,  Isaiah 53 (The Message interprets Isaiah 53 beautifully)/  “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” / Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, Book of Common Prayer

3. John 1:1-18/ “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent”/ Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, Book of Common Prayer 

4. Mary’s song: Luke 1:46-55, Zecharia’s Song: Luke 1:68-79, Simeon’s song: Luke 2:29-32/ “O Holy Night”/ Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Book of Common Prayer

5. On Christmas Day: Luke 2:1-21/ “Joy to the World,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”/ Collect for Christmas Day, The Book of Common Prayer 

12 Activities and Ideas…

Image by Sybil MacBeth

Image by Sybil MacBeth

1. From Sybil: “Advent calendars are not just for kids! Instead of opening daily doors with pictures or retrieving small gifts from pockets, adults and children can mark the day-by-day journey to Christmas by praying/drawing on a blank calendar template. Pray for a person or write and meditate on an Advent word each day. Just the small amount of time it takes to fill the space with doodles and color each day can create a time of quiet, reflection, and listening to God. Set aside a table with a basket of markers and/or colored pencils where family members can work on their calendars. Hang the calendars on the wall for all to see. Watch them grow daily.” (You can find three fantastic, FREE templates here.) 

2. Mark the start of the new Church year with a commitment to practice fixed-hour prayer through the daily offices. A great place to start this Advent season is with Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime. 

3.  Choose 26 people who do difficult, prophetic work, who serve from the margins, or who are in a special season of waiting and anticipation. Pray for them. Encourage them. Listen to them. Make them the focus of your Advent calendar (see above). Consider presenting them with a small gift—a kind note, a cup of coffee, a donation, a few extra volunteer hours, a public shout-out, a bouquet of flowers or pot of homemade soup. (I’m thinking of people like Lisa Sharon Harper, who has worked tirelessly on immigration reform; Justin Lee, who models and practices “living in the tension” through his work with the Gay Christian Network; Karla, the struggling mother of three whose infectious smile greets thousands of people at our local food pantry here in Rhea County; our friends from Samaritan’s Purse working with Ebola patients in West Africa; or Sarah Bessey, who is expecting Tiny #4 soon.) 

4. Consider setting up your manger scene progressively, one set of figures at a time. Wait until Christmas Day to add Baby Jesus. It’s as if the rest of the figurines are waiting in anticipation—just like you and your family. 

5. From Sybil: “Cut two-inch pieces of yellow or tan yarn. Whenever you or your children notice an act of kindness during the day, invite them to add a piece of hay to Jesus’ bed.” 

Photo by Sybil MacBeth

Photo by Sybil MacBeth

6.    Church leaders: Check out these great, interactive prayer station ideas from Theresa Cho. The series of Advent-themed prayer stations engage all the senses and are meant for an intergenerational community (thought there are also some additional stations just for toddlers).  You can find another series of prayer stations here and here. 

7.    Start a Jesse Tree tradition in which ornaments representing various biblical figures and events in the redemption story are placed on a tree, their stories unfolding one at a time each day of Advent, building up to the arrival of Jesus. This is a great way to bring children into the spirit of the Advent season through biblical stories and images, and Ann Voskamp has quite a few resources for doing this well: The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas, Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas, and a whole Web site full of FREE printable ornaments, coloring pages, cards, gift tags, etc. 

8. Participate in the “Stay Woke” movement, which invites participants to reflect and act on the lectionary readings from Advent with visual art, literary and biblical reflections, music, podcasts, calls to action, and more. Hosted by the folks at Theology of Ferguson, Stay Awoke “is a project of people interested in exploring the depths of the darkness and interaction with light through the time of Advent.” Writes Mickey Jones: “It is an experiment in spiritual honesty during a time of the year that is often covers up the pain and struggle of the world with a giant glittery bow.” Follow the hashtag #StayWokeAdvent on social media. 

9.  Commit this Advent season to educating yourself (or your faith community) about a particular pervasive injustice—mass incarceration, human trafficking, child brides, infant & maternal mortality, violence against women, etc. Write prayers of prophetic lament around these injustices and generate plans of action to respond to them. Identify activists, peacemakers, and faith leaders who are working to bring light into the darkness and listen and respond to them with humility. Consider leaving just one holiday tradition behind this year, so that the absence (of a fancy meal, a familiar decoration, a favorite ornament) is a reminder of how much justice has yet to be realized in world where the Kingdom has been inaugurated but not yet consummated. Let the cry of your heart this season be, “Come, Lord Jesus.”  

Photo by Sybil MacBeth

Photo by Sybil MacBeth

10. From Sybil: “One way to teach children (and adults) about watching and waiting—but not in vain—is with bulbs. From a garden or big-box home store, purchase an amaryllis or several paperwhite narcissus bulbs. Fill a container with potting soil or stones. Plant the bulb in the soil or stones without about half of the bulb showing above the surface. Place the pot near a sunny window and water frequently….Start the bulbs on the first day of Advent. Gentle daily watering functions as a form of Advent discipline. Somewhere in the latter days of Advent or on one of the twelve days of Christmas, the plant will start to flower.”

11.  Introduce an Advent wreath into your home. Light a different candle each Sunday of Advent—one for hope, one for peace, one for joy, and one for love—concluding with a fifth candle representing the light of Christ to be lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. You can find traditional Advent wreath ideas here, and some lovely, custom wooden wreaths here. 

12.  Pay attention. Jesus showed up in an unexpected way at an unexpected time, and he just keeps on doing it. Don’t get so focused on having a powerful Christmas morning moment that you miss that quiet, unglamorous moment when Jesus shows up in day-to-day life, when his presence makes itself known in some new, convicting, or comforting way. Mark that moment, no matter when it occurs, with light—a lit candle, an orange and yellow doodle in your Advent candle, a moment in the sunshine. Revel in the surprise and make it a mini-Christmas. 

4 Additional Resources…

1.    The Season of the Nativity by Sybil MacBeth
2.    Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro 
3.   The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann (to complement our series) 
4.    A Journey Toward Home: Soul Travel from Advent to Lent by Kristin Carrocinno and Christine Sine. 

"Pay Attention" Advent Series …

The lectionary is rich this time of year, and as I get back to blogging through the Scripture readings each week, our focus will be on paying attention to the witness of the prophets, connecting them to the Christmas story and to our present longing for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. For my own Advent calendar, I'll be picking out key words from the biblical prophecies assigned to each week (Isaiah 64:1-9; Isaiah 40:1-11; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; and 2 Samuel 7:1-16) and adding them to my "Pay Attention" Advent tree.  (I've gone ahead and filled out the first one for Sunday, Nov. 30.) Check Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for the key words each day, as well as reflections on Advent, prophecy, and God-with-us.  I'd also love to share your own key-word Advent trees, so feel free to send images my way!


What Advent ideas would you add? What plans do you and your faith community have for this time of year? 

End of article logo.

Shareable Permalink

© 2014 All rights reserved.
Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites without written permission is prohibited.
Browse articles with tag: Advent