Preparing for Advent (Year B)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons 2018, Year B, copyright © 2017 Augsburg Fortress.


Advent is both a wonderful and a challenging liturgical season. We begin a new church year while the world is busy finishing a calendar year—and the month is filled with shopping, pageants, and parties beyond what our energy and time can handle. But while society urges us to hurry and spend, scripture and tradition beckon us to slow down and wait. Congregational leaders have an important and particular responsibility—and yes, challenge—to help members (and themselves) focus and wait.

Enter the wheel. Author, theologian, and artist Gertrud Mueller Nelson doesn’t tire in her enthusiasm for the Advent wreath as the season’s most powerful symbol. She wrote about its significance in her groundbreaking book, To Dance with God (Paulist Press, 1986), and now in her eighties speaks of it with the same passion.

The wreath can be traced to the Romans’ ancient rite of waiting in the darkness for the return of the sun, and for the Feast of the Sun on December 25. The ancients, Nelson says, took a wheel off their wagons and fastened torches to it to see them through the darkness. The only thing alive in the winter, evergreen, was brought inside and fastened to the wheel. To those huddled in darkness, it was a sign of vegetation and springtime. More than three hundred years ago, German Christians fashioned the same elements into the Advent wreath—the greens a sign of hope and eternity. What was once a Feast of the Sun has become for us the Feast of the Son.

Today our Advent wreaths are often purchased, as are Advent calendars. Even the local secular bookstore has those (sometimes filled with chocolate). Both are symbols and tools of what Advent urges us to do: mark the passage of time as we wait. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Advent is about the art of waiting. But holiday decorations have been on the shelves at Target since well before Halloween, and the world declares everything after Thanksgiving Day the “Christmas season.”

Though all of us are tempted to act otherwise, now is the time for slowing down and leaning together. As with the ancients, we gather in the darkness to wait for the light. If our ancestors removed a wagon wheel for torchlight, consider what it would be like for us to take a wheel off our car, truck, or minivan. Instead of rushing to the mall, we’d stay home but also gather with friends to sing ancient hymns and hear readings of prophecy and promise.

In the dead of winter, we need one another and we need signs that the sun (and the Son) will come again—life returning to dark and dormant land and lives. Like the ancients who gathered together for courage and hope that the sun would return, we gather each week to hear the word that does not pass away. The season’s texts give us voice for our brokenness and the promise of a savior.

In the first week of Advent, we are reminded of our desperate need for a God to restore and save. The psalmist cries on our behalf, “Come and save us!” And Mark, the gospel writer whose message is famous for immediacy, warns us to keep alert, stay awake.

In the second week, we are urged to reorder our lives. Isaiah proclaims, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isa. 40:4). Clearly, we are in need of a civil engineer in all that we do. How would we reorder our lives if we remembered all will pass away? How would our paths and priorities shift? Perhaps we’d cling even more to the word, water, and meal that help us prepare each week for the return of the Lord. As John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord, so do we. We prepare our hearts and homes, not in haste, but in love and with longing.

In week three, Isaiah promises good news to the captives. We who walk in darkness, especially in this season of waiting and watching, also rejoice. God is turning our mourning into laughter and joy. That’s good news for a people stuck in winter, awaiting light. John wasn’t stuck in winter, but he was stuck in the wilderness, breaking forth to testify to the light. We walk in our own wildernesses but are called to join the baptized of all generations to testify to the one who brings light and life to a broken world.

Mary is the focus of the fourth Sunday of Advent as the angel Gabriel tells her that God will keep God’s promise to continue the reign of David. Although perplexed, Mary ponders the angel’s word and with confidence is able to say, “Count me in,” to the continuation of this salvation story.

With texts and traditions as guides, this Advent let us challenge one another to honor these dark days. As twenty-first-century people, we are not good at either embracing darkness or slowing down. We don’t even know darkness anymore—we’ve banished it with electricity, everywhere and at all hours. And we certainly can’t wait. We look for the shortest line at the grocery store and rush through yellow lights. But we know incubation is what we often most need: for grapes to become fine wine, for a novel to be written, for dough to rise, for a crop to grow, for a baby to be born. It is in the waiting that we learn about ourselves and others, taking important steps toward understanding. Perhaps there is no better gift to teach our children than the ability to wait. Christmas is coming; it’s just not here yet.

But Advent is not all doom and darkness; it is filled with possibilities to coax forth light along the way. Each week (and daily at mealtime), the Advent wreath candles do that for us. Light them during worship, and provide ways for your congregation to do the same at home. There may even still be time to gather folks together with simple supplies to make their own wreaths.

One of the best ways to travel through the darkness of Advent is by celebrating a “mini Christmas” on December 6, St. Nicholas Day. Teach about Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, in Sunday school or during the children’s sermon. Ask teachers to prepare a specific lesson. Have an elder of the congregation dressed as St. Nicholas tell the children about his life. Encourage families to do deeds of love and mercy anonymously and without reward—these were the ways of St. Nicholas. Giving gifts and helping another when no one is looking bring joy to children and adults alike. And as Gertrud Nelson reminds us, learning about, sharing about, and celebrating the original St. Nicholas gives dignity back to Santa Claus, who was fashioned from this saint.

Visual Environment

As a festive culture swirls around us, how can your worship space declare to the faith community and neighborhood that for four weeks (or longer, if your congregation practices an extended Advent) we gather together in stillness with confidence that the Savior is coming, that Christmas is “on the way” but not here yet?

While the world decorates with “more,” consider a worship space of less. Place your Advent wreath in a central place—or in a different location from last year. In our cities and towns, even in our homes, red and green dominate the decorative palette. In the church, our seasonal color is blue. Use it simply or extravagantly. Let texture and soft light warm your worship space, reinforcing the theme of coming together in the darkness to wait for the light. Resist the urge to set up the church’s tree(s) too early. Instead, decorate with bare branches and candles, and blue fabric draped in creative and unexpected ways.

Invite the children or families to create displays in the gathering space or nave—either one for the season or one each week. If your congregation routinely chooses an Advent theme, or wants to do so this year, consider a surprise display each week that may focus on a theme. For instance:

  •  To honor this period of waiting, fill a table with clocks and watches. Add character by soliciting those that have been relegated to closets or drawers and surely are accompanied by interesting ancestral stories. Hunt through treasures at a secondhand or antique store.
  •  Focus on watching by collecting binoculars, eyeglasses, telescopes. Or ask worshipers to use their own creativity by bringing items to church they believe express “watching.”
  •  If your church has a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account or a web page, invite members to take “waiting and watching” photos throughout the season—not as “just one more thing to do” during December, but as their own spiritual journey toward the manger—their own documentation of huddling in the darkness as we await the light.
  •  Or what about wheels? If you’re in a rural community, can you find a wagon wheel to hoist front and center in your worship space as a reminder that when a wheel is removed, we have to slow down, perhaps even stand still? Or think of how much children will be connected to the worship environment if every Sunday they walk by a display of wheels that includes their Hot Wheels contribution.
  •  Ask four families, four classes, or four small groups to use their own creativity to plan and stage a decorative display each week. Urge them to read the texts for that Sunday and identify themes that emerge. Cheer on their creativity.


Unlike every other season of the church year, Advent has no major festival that signals its start. As a result, we gently roll into Advent. We quietly start this new year. Music chosen carefully to support themes from the lectionary makes this season rich. If part of your congregation’s tradition is a service of lessons and carols, honor the songs and historical texts of Advent rather than Christmas. (For an example of such a service, see the seasonal rites for Advent.) Let the texts and music of this season lead your people not just to Bethlehem but on many detours—including a road that may say “dead end” (the end times), but with a salvation promise only God can give.

From just after All Saints Day to Christmas, our readings are ripe with signs and wonders, watching and waiting. Let the months flow into one another, and don’t be bound by hymn choices that fall only under your hymnal’s seasonal Advent heading.

Try these weekly suggestions from beyond the Advent section.

Advent 1: “Lo! he comes with clouds descending” (ELW 435)

Advent 2: “My Lord, what a morning” (ELW 438)

Advent 3: “Hail to the Lord’s anointed” (ELW 311)

Advent 4: “For all the faithful women” (ELW 419; st. 6)

Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s topical index takes you even further as you creatively plan the season: “Wake, awake, for night is flying” (ELW 436), “Love divine, all loves excelling” (ELW 631), and the rhythmic “Canticle of the Turning” (ELW 723).

Music selections are often the manifestation of the Advent-Christmas tension, so look for opportunities of joyful compromise, perhaps outside of worship, such as intergenerational caroling. Know that iPod playlists and car radios will be filled with favorite seasonal songs. The liturgy is yet another opportunity for leaders to help the congregation not rush into Christmas.

Seasonal Checklist

  •  Order greens and candles for the Advent wreath. If it is your custom to have individuals and families light the candles each week, make a schedule and ask participants now.
  •  It may not be too late to gather members of all ages to make their own Advent wreaths. Greens can be woven together and placed around four candles. Ask a creative parishioner to lead the way.
  •  If you plan to use any suggestions from this introduction in decorating the worship space, plan and advertise well in advance. Assign people to be in charge of one display or a different display for each week.
  •  Look ahead to the checklists for Christmas and the Time after Epiphany.
  •  Use the “Gathering Song” rubric in Evangelical Lutheran Worship to help you plan your Advent liturgy: “The time of gathering song may be brief or extended, and may include one or more of the following: hymns, psalms; a Kyrie; a canticle of praise” (p. 98). This carefully crafted instruction invites flexibility and creativity in the liturgy. If lighting an Advent wreath is the only thing you do that is unique to the season, let this invitation tap into new possibilities.
  •  Try a new setting of the liturgy, especially if you’ve used the same one for some time. Or, if you’ve been experimenting, return to a familiar setting.
  •  Omit the creed.



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