Monday Muse: The True Meaning of Advent

A bumper sticker with a prominent nativity image proclaims, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” raising its witness to a Good News that isn’t contingent upon wreaths and light displays and holiday sales. Yet even “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” and “Keep the Christ in Christmas” campaigns draw our focus toward Christmas, effectively bypassing the liturgical season of Advent.

The reason for the Advent season is not Baby Jesus sleeping quietly in a manger with Mary and Joseph looking demure and composed despite the hell they’ve just endured. The reason for the Advent season is precisely all of the messiness that we gloss over at Christmas: it is the world’s longing for reprieve and reconciliation, it is the hopeful agony of waiting for something new, it is the bitter reality that Christ is not yet fully manifest among us. (If I had my druthers, Advent would begin on All Saints Day at the start of November — not to assuage my guilt for loving the post-Halloween rush of decorations and lights and music — but to allow us all more time to wrestle with this holy season of longing.)

The mystery of Advent is difficult to comprehend let alone to practice, let alone to practice with “Jingle Bells” playing and Santa Clause waving in every mall in America. But to simultaneously rejoice in what is coming, while stamping our feet impatiently that it is not yet here… To open our eyes wide to the world’s pain, and open our hearts wide to the impossibilities that may bloom in such a wasteland… To recognize the angst within and around us for healing, and to respond to ourselves and to one another as though the scares are already faded… This is the true meaning of Advent.

But even when we understand its meaning, Advent is not the simplest of liturgical seasons to teach to children. In many churches, kids’ primary experience of Advent is the time spent practicing for the Christmas pageant … which is great fun, but not instructive about Advent itself.

Advent StorybookOne lovely book captures Advent’s mysteries, its call for attentiveness to the world around us, and its longing for Christ: Advent Storybook: 24 Stories to Share Before Christmas.

Advent Storybook is a collection of adventurous tales told by Mother Bear to Benjamin Bear each night during Advent, about a little bear who tries to follow a star on its journey across the sky, encountering strangers along the way, receiving unexpected gifts, learning grace and hospitality with each adventure. “A rose blooming in winter! That must have been wonderful to see,” said Benjamin. Mother Bear nodded. “Always remember,” she said, “God’s love can warm and brighten the coldest, darkest night.”

Although several tales conclude with a moral that borders on cliche, as a whole, this is an adorable book that’s surprisingly inclusive and quietly justice-minded. The little bear of Mother Bear’s tales meets Santa Claus as well as a (Buddhist?) monk, sees visions, talks to a king, and walks with a blind man. “God welcomes everyone — rich and poor, kings and little lambs alike.” In Mother Bear’s tales, we learn how to live in Advent rather than just waiting for the days to pass until Christmas.

advent storybook 2I’ve used the stories from Advent Storybook during the weekly children’s moment in worship for each Sunday in Advent. It’s also a beautiful book to read day-by-day with your children, grandchildren, nieces & nephews … or just to yourself, over a cup of hot chocolate before bed, to remind you that joy and dreaming are part of Advent too.

Advent Storybook: 24 Stories to Share Before Christmas
Antonie Schneider. Maja Dusikova, illustrator.
English translation by Marisa Miller.
North-South Books, Inc. (New York 2004)

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