• Preparing for Advent (Year A)

    The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2020, copyright © 2019 Augsburg Fortress.


    Preachers love Advent. Preparations for Christmas often stir up a combination of anticipation, anxiety, and excitement. The fact that the days are becoming colder and darker in many places brings other connections. Yet, Advent is the season that most honestly names and acknowledges our human condition of longing, waiting, and restlessness. Advent is usually seen in relation to Christmas, and though it is the time of year when listeners face the most distractions due to the many things on their minds and hearts, preachers have the unique role of being spiritual guides, providing time and space for reflection on key spiritual themes.

    The texts of Advent can easily lead us into two traps: one in the past and one in the future. The prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures can cause us to pretend that we are waiting for Jesus to be born as he was two thousand years ago. The apocalyptic texts on the first Sunday of Advent can propel us into a distant future, wondering if and when Christ will come again to bring justice and peace to our earth. Though in many ways we are still waiting for the Messiah to come (again), and we need a healthy eschatology that trusts in God’s promised future, liturgical preachers invite us to wake up to Christ’s presence among us here and now. The Sunday assembly is the place we learn to recognize the Lord’s coming week after week, but from there we go to behold anew this Advent coming in the events of everyday life—whether in the news or in our personal circumstances; whether frightening, confusing, or mundane.

    The first Sunday of Advent is a particularly opportune time to speak of mindfulness and living in the present, even as the apocalyptic texts seem to name the end of the world at some time in the future. Year A is unique in that two of the passages (Matthew and Romans) speak of watching and waiting. In our age of instant gratification, the spiritual connections are many. Preachers might note the contemporary draw to yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices that lead to an awareness of the present moment.

    The human theme of longing resonates with all of us to some extent. We are always wishing we could delay aging, go back to a certain time in our lives and relive it, or live in an unrealistic ideal situation. In most cases, we fail to embrace fully the present and what is.

    Images offer concrete ways to organize a preacher’s reflection on Advent and daily life, and year A offers a plethora of riches: the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11 on Advent 2); the desert rejoicing and blossoming (Isaiah 35 on Advent 3); a farmer waiting in patience for crops to grow (James 5 on Advent 3); Emmanuel as God-with-us, even in the humble story of an unwed mother (Matthew 1 on Advent 4).

    Advent puts before us this great mystery: we wait for what we already have. Preachers serve as spiritual directors, in a sense, inviting hearers to behold anew Christ coming again and again, Sunday after Sunday, day after day, not only in word and meal, but in the sacramentality of everyday life. There are abundant images to help preachers proclaim a word that has deep resonance with what it means to be human.

    Intercessory Prayer

    Advent is a short season of waiting in darkness and longing for the light; thoughtful repentance and pregnant expectation; remembering, savoring, and hoping for God’s coming. How might your assembly’s prayers be subtly—or startlingly—shifted over four Sundays so the assembly might “awake” through their interceding?

    Silence: Silence remains a challenging aspect of prayer for many North American Lutheran assemblies. We are not like those gnarled desert fathers and mothers who willingly stripped themselves of words and images in their quest to pray. Instead, we are uneasy with silence. We do not know how to wait within it. We forget that silence is not empty but full. And perhaps it is silence’s fullness that challenges us. In silence, we might actually hear God speak, which—if we are anything like anyone in the Bible—would scare the dickens out of us.

    What if in Advent we incorporated more silence into our interceding? We could omit any spoken assembly response to the prayers, advising the assisting minister to count to 30—or 50—following each petition. Or we could further limit the words we use, crafting short petitions—For the church. For the earth. For those at war. For our town. For the children in our community. For those who are dying—but in between those petitions allow silence to grow and take shape in the worship space, waking us up to a new way to pray.

    Preparing the assembly for such silence will be necessary. This could be done in the worship folder, or orally by the pastor before worship.

    Music: While some assemblies may be used to praying the intercessions with a musical refrain or with instrumental music providing an aural layer behind spoken petitions, this practice may be new to others. A line from an Advent hymn could form the assembly response to each petition (see the assembly song suggestions later in this introduction). Or an Advent hymn that will be sung this season could be played by an instrumentalist softly throughout the intercessions, coloring how the assembly conveys to God “our lament, our hope, and our thanksgiving” (Principles for Worship, Application L-16B). Music behind or throughout the intercessions may serve to wake us up and help us intercede for a needy world.

    Gesture: Another assembly might “awake” to intercessions if its members are asked to join in a bodily movement or gesture during the prayers. This approach must be introduced with care, as mandating how to pray—Pray this way!—will not help anyone actually pray. But perhaps the pastor, or prayer leader, or a collection of the assembly’s children could invite those gathered to pray during Advent using their bodies. This could be as simple as an invitation to kneel. Or the assembly could be invited to lift their hands and pray in orans. Or the assembly could be asked to turn to the four directions as petitions are made toward north, south, east, and west. People, places, and events associated with those directions could be named in prayer petitions.

    Our bodies can easily be forgotten as we pray, but certainly—and all of the people in your assemblies who go to yoga classes know this—our bodies can aid our praying. Our bodies, after all, are who we are. It is in, with, and under those bodies that we intercede for the bodies in our world.

    Assembly Song

    Advent has so many themes to explore, it can be overwhelming: longing, hoping, repenting, expecting; nighttime and the dawn of the new day; freedom and justice. How can this short season be meaningful without being overwhelming?

    As you choose assembly song, fight the urge to schedule every hymn in the book, even though each is wonderful in its own way. Instead, read the lections; consider the direction the preacher is heading; examine your local context; and then look to the world and ask yourself: For these four weeks, what words can we sing that will bring new meaning to these themes? What songs can reshape our thinking so that we don’t just sing about justice, for example, but learn how God wants us to be the embodiment of justice in our place and time?

    “Canticle of the Turning” (ELW 723) has a powerful refrain for this new church year. While the stanzas of the hymn highlight different facets of the season, the refrain is easy to come back to week after week. It can be powerful as a sung response during the intercessions, and the stanzas can be used as a basis for those spoken intercessions. You could use stanza 1 as the gospel acclamation and stanza 4 as the response to the gospel. The hymn could also be used as the offering song or just prior to communion, as the assembly considers that the “hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn” (stanza 3). Always ask yourself, How does singing the words (perhaps multiple times) change us and help us embody the good news?

    The beauty of this hymn (and others mentioned later) is that it can be sung and retained by the youngest to the oldest. It invites a sprightly tempo that can be accompanied by piano, organ, a rip-roaring fiddle, or, with some creativity, Orff instruments.

    Another hymn that can be used in multiple ways is “Come now, O Prince of peace” (ELW 247). Its language fits liturgically as an Advent processional, sung as the procession enters and then encircles the assembly (“make us one body”); a Kyrie (“reconcile your people/all nations”); or an offering song, leading to the unity of eating the meal together. The Korean text is also provided, offering a chance for a soloist—a child, perhaps—to sing the hymn in its original language, uniting us with Christians all over the world. It can be accompanied with piano, organ, or bells, or left unaccompanied for a more haunting sound. You could also experiment with an aleatoric setting: with the help of the choir, have the assembly start singing stanza 4 at their own tempo as the procession reaches them, and then as they finish the stanza, have them hold the last note until all are done—an embodiment of unity.

    Finally, consider hymns that can be used liturgically—you could select stanzas of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” (ELW 257) as an acclamation, in place of the Lamb of God, or as a call to worship. “Wait for the Lord” (ELW 262) could be sung as a response to intercessory prayer, with the ending pitches hummed underneath the intercessions. And “He came down” (ELW 253) can be sung joyously in full four-part harmony, swaying gently, while the Advent wreath is lighted.

    Worship Space

    Not only does Advent mark the beginning of a new liturgical year, but it also opens this unfolding arc of the celebration of the incarnation from Advent through Christmas and into Epiphany. This new season offers us the opportunity to create a clean or refreshed canvas for our worship space. Advent is a pregnant time of waiting and watching. In some ways, we are invited into this fertile and growing darkness of Advent’s womb, full of expectation for the unfolding of God’s incarnation among us. Much as a pregnant woman tends to her health and environment in a new way when she is nurturing a child growing in her body, Advent affords a time to take stock and look anew at our worship space. How does it create room in our communal life for the ongoing incarnation of God among us? This can happen in big and small ways. How can you change your space to make room for a new thing to happen there?

    Here are some guiding questions to help you reflect on your space:

    •  Are there pieces of art or fixtures that could be moved or removed for the season to create space for either emptiness or a new thing? The defined period of Advent can be a perfect time to experiment with removing something for a short time to create a change.
    •  Could changing the orientation of assembly seating, the area for proclamation of the word, or the feasting table open up new ways to engage the space?

    How can we reflect this growing and rich darkness among us as a space that can give birth to something new? Here are a few thoughts to spark ideas:

    •  Many churches use an Advent wreath during this season. Is there a way your community might embody the Advent wreath? For example, you could ask worshipers of different ages to process with the candle(s) each Sunday, circulate through the worship space, and then set the candle(s) in place. The procession grows as the season unfolds.
    •  Blue is a rich and beautiful color. Does your space allow you to simply hang blue fabric in a new place? Can it hang from the ceiling or cover a wall that does not usually change with the seasons to visually open up possibility? Could you cut the fabric into four pieces or have four different shades of blue, hanging a new piece/shade each week to create an unfolding in the worship space that mirrors the anticipation and growing depth of the season?
    •  Can blue fabric or paper be used to create “rivers of living water” (John 4:14; 7:38; Rev. 22:1) that may give rise to a “tree of life” (Rev. 22:2) to flower in the wilderness (Isa. 35:1-2)?
    •  Is that tree of life a simple birch branch or a tree cut from nearby woods, or is it a bare evergreen Christmas tree awaiting incarnation, highlighted by a blue backdrop?
    •  What can you do in your space to visually hold the Advent season in its beauty, growing darkness, and simplicity to create a space apart from the way our society prepares for Christmas with hectic days leading up to December 24?

    A pregnant woman has the unique opportunity and invitation to take a step back and take stock of herself and her environment. How is she preparing herself and her community to welcome this new child? In a similar way, worship planners can take a step back and take stock. What are the critical pieces to reevaluate or change so there is healthy space to welcome new life?

    Seasonal Checklist

    •  Order candles and greens for the Advent wreath, or ask members of the congregation to make or donate these items. Consider a smaller, table-sized wreath for gatherings outside the principal worship space.
    •  Recruit volunteers of all ages to help prepare the worship space for Advent.
    •  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.
    •  Work with children’s and family ministries to prepare resources that support household prayer.
    •  Encourage the use of the O Antiphons (versified in “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” ELW 257) at home from Tuesday, December 17, until Monday, December 23. Sing the entire hymn on the fourth Sunday of Advent.
    •  Schedule time after the fourth Sunday of Advent to prepare the worship space for Christmas liturgies.


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