Seasonal

Preparing for Advent (Year A)

The following seasonal introduction was first published in Sundays and Seasons 2023, Year A, copyright © 2022 Augsburg Fortress.

Preaching

Advent is a season of waiting. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7, Advent 3). As we declare good news, let us encourage people to slow down, take notice, and wait. Is there teaching about meditation or prayer that can be included in your homilies? Would it be helpful to insert moments of silence into your preaching so that the congregation can hear and feel what silence “sounds” like?

As we remind people, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matt. 24:44, Advent 1), how might we inspire folks to prepare a radical welcome for Jesus in our homes, churches, and societies? Just as Joseph had to overcome disbelief and societal expectations to do as the angel commanded him, taking Mary as his wife (Matt. 1:24, Advent 4), how can we help our children, youth, and families prioritize Jesus during this Advent season?

Let us particularly honor children, not as the church of tomorrow, but of today. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of a baby who changed the world, how will our families “see the glory of the Lord, [and] the majesty of our God” (Isa. 35:2, Advent 3)? Perhaps you will uplift the prayer we offer for the newly baptized, “Sustain them with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence” (ELW, p. 231; Isa. 11:2-3, Advent 2).

As we reflect upon baptism, remember that we “proclaim Christ in word and deed, in care for others and the world God made, and in work for justice and peace (ELW, p. 228). Romans 15 says, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another. . . . Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:5, 7, Advent 2). As those who announce God’s word, let us entreat others to repent, confess, make reparation, and seek reconciliation. In the words of John the Baptist, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 3:2, Advent 2). How is God challenging us to bravely resist the individual, corporate, and systemic sin that has so easily beset us in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like?

As preachers we must contextualize our prophetic witness to our neighborhoods. We are also entreated to speak boldly about how we have historically associated light with holiness and darkness with sin. You may use the entire Romans 13 pericope for fodder. For example, “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom. 13:11-12, Advent 1). Let us contemplate how our Indigenous neighbors, and those of color, hear these kinds of messages during the Advent season. Is there a way to preach so that you intentionally extol holy darkness and the partnership of God’s darkness and light throughout the cosmos? Will you paint a picture of Jesus as a brown-skinned, Palestinian, Jewish baby boy? How might this imagery arouse your congregation to reimagine the unity of the human family and our obligations to one another?

Intercessory Prayer

Waiting is a long and arduous process. With waiting come anxiety, anticipation, and restlessness. Western civilization promotes a culture of immediacy, which can lead to such conflicted emotions in waiting. There are so many negative connotations to waiting, like waiting in line at the DMV, waiting for a diagnosis, waiting at the deathbed of a beloved, and waiting for the inevitable. How do we turn away from the idol of immediacy—a characteristic of white supremacy culture—and turn to the one for whom we wait in these in-between spaces? Taking time to be in prayer, to be in deep, intentional, and meaningful conversation with God is a way to embody this time of waiting. During this Advent season, taking the time in both worship and personal practice for intercessory prayer reveals that time is folded in upon itself as we pray in thanksgiving for those who have gone before and for those who are to come. Have the community take a deep, collective breath between intercessions. Do not be afraid to have extended pauses between intercessions. Such pregnant pauses embody a practice of waiting and anticipation.

As we pray for the coming of Emmanuel, we must also realize that how we pray and the words we use in prayer matter deeply. Words signifying dark/light and good/bad dichotomies do great harm to siblings of color. Advent is a reminder that there is sacredness in the dark. The darkness is good, beautiful, and holy—we must dare ourselves to pray boldly where the Holy fully and entirely resides, especially in dark sacred spaces. It is good to remember that Jesus, the savior of the world, was safely guarded in the darkness of Mary’s womb before entering into the world filled with light that would also betray him in the light. If possible, dim the lights during intercessory prayer so worshipers may pray and ponder in semidarkness.

Advent is an opportunity to reset as we enter a new liturgical year. It is also a time to return to those beginning places that are bare and raw; this is a time to strip down our prayer language. Use words that you would use speaking to a close personal friend about joys, sorrows, and everything in between: “Help us, O God” could change to, “Hey, God, we need you.” Preparation of intercessory prayers may include asking:

  • Where are we waiting for God to show up?
  • For what do we most yearn in our relationships with God and neighbor?
  • What will bring about justice that blooms like Isaiah’s desert (Isa. 35:1-2, Advent 3)?

Advent reminds us that there are finite days in our finite lives until Christ comes again in Christ’s own infinite being. A seasonal reset paired with our finiteness leads to intercessions and responses that can be changed to reflect the newness and finiteness of this liturgical season, recognizing that our prayers are both for a moment in time and also connect us to the communion of saints beyond space and time.

Assembly Song

Before making plans about what your assembly will sing during Advent, it may be worthwhile—especially at the start of a new three-year lectionary cycle—to first consider some New (Liturgical) Year’s resolutions. As a season of promise and anticipation, Advent not only initiates the “Incarnation” cycle of the church year (Advent, Christmas, Time after Epiphany), but also prepares us to recognize the incarnation and manifestation of Jesus in our own lives and communities. How can worship planning move beyond casual “plug-and-play” approaches and embrace the formative and communal power of music described in resources such as Principles for Worship? How do songs—even those familiar “favorites”—point beyond themselves toward the full body of Christ and its myriad expressions? These are complex and unwieldy questions, but worthy of sustained attention by pastors, musicians, and all who participate in worship planning.

More practically, what would it look like for pastors, musicians, and worship leadership teams to begin planning by together reading and discussing the season’s lectionary texts and commentaries from Sundays and Seasons: Preaching? What would it look like for meetings, Bible studies, and other gatherings outside of worship to include singing? What songs bear the weight of repetition, preparing hearts and minds to welcome Jesus in all times and places? To adapt a familiar saying: we are what we sing, and the corporate body of the singing assembly requires a nourishing diet and regular exercise. Advent invites us to ponder repetition, patience, and all that is required for careful preparation (James 5:7-10, Advent 3).

Although “waiting” is a common Advent theme, careful reading of the year A texts reveals much movement: “Come, let us go” proclaims the prophet (Isa. 2:3, Advent 1); “come to Zion with singing” (Isa. 35:10, Advent 3); “Go and tell” (Matt. 11:4, Advent 3). Even the “stir up” prayers for each Sunday suggest that there’s more to the season than quietly waiting to sing Christmas carols. Consider songs such as “Freedom Is Coming” (ACS 903) that reflect this anticipatory sense of movement—of impatience, of stirring up, of praying with our feet. Perhaps “Many will come” (ACS 982) could be sung each week as the table is set, an allusion to the Isaiah reading on the first Sunday of Advent. In what other ways can your assembly move, branch out, and grow (Isa. 11:1, Advent 2) into its preparation for Christ’s coming?

Since the Name of Jesus will fall on Sunday, January 1, 2023, consider song choices that amplify or unpack the “names for our God” (ELW 524, st. 2) heard throughout the Advent readings—Emmanuel, Immanuel, Messiah, Branch, Root of Jesse. Perhaps the refrain “Come, Emmanuel” can be excerpted from “Come now, O God” (ACS 902) as a prayer response: a leader sings the first measure and all respond with the second measure, either in unison or in harmony.

Outside of worship, encourage the singing of shorter songs such as “Wait for the Lord” (ELW 262) or “He came down” (ELW 253) at staff meetings or in homes as Advent wreaths are lit. Equip children to help lead these songs. Preparation should not be confined to worship; we ready ourselves to respond to Christ’s coming in all times and places, in mysterious and unexpected ways. Come, Lord Jesus!

Worship Space

Advent is a compact and rich season, and its lectionary presents an array of themes and emotions. As you plan, consider how what you establish visually for the season of Advent can evolve into Christmas and the time after Epiphany. How can the worship space hold emotion, wonder, and prophecy, carrying them to birth in the season of Christmas, and into deeper manifestation after Epiphany? Some Advent themes are simpler and more easily understood: waiting, anticipation, preparation. Others are more complex and require more pondering: problematic interpretations of dark and light imagery, Mary’s call to justice, and hope in times of increasing peril. As we live into the endless unrolling of time as a human family and as God’s creation, we grow in our understanding of their nuances.

The psalms are so often our scriptural language for emotion, and joy shows up in the very first Sunday of Advent. The first verse of Psalm 122 gives us something to work with right away: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (ELW). How can our worship spaces inspire the kind of gladness the psalmist feels? Blue, the color for Advent, is a powerful, intriguing color, able to evoke diverse emotions. Use it liberally and make bold choices with bright, complex hues such as turquoise, cerulean, aqua, indigo, and ultramarine. Add contrasting orange, gold, or pink accents to create a colorful display that dazzles the eye and inspires joy. Other possibilities:

  • Add one or two bright fabric drapes to the altar and pulpit paraments.
  • Add color and radiance to your worship space with tealights inside glass vessels of varying colors.
  • Add colorful ribbons or fabric to your processional cross.
  • Invite an intergenerational group to cut out lettering or paint a banner to display the first verse of Psalm 122.
  • Movement can express joy: Fans can move fabric or ribbon hangings. Tambourines, shakers, drums, and bells add aural movement. If your musicians can be seen by the assembly, they could move in rhythm to the music, too. If it’s not already in your usual worship practice, add a procession with cross and candles to the gathering song. Such a procession could culminate in lighting the Advent wreath.

Consider how to introduce darkness into your worship space, and how the assembly might embrace darkness as a mood, as an ambiance, and as a place where God dwells in beauty and mystery.

  • Could your gathering song be sung without a printed or projected worship aid so that the gathering rite could occur in semidarkness? In many worship spaces, creating semidarkness in morning light is a challenge. Don’t use the overhead lights; instead, use can uplights (a type of indoor spotlight) along the walls or behind the altar to create a gradation of light and bright focal points that throw darkened areas into contrast. If you use an Advent wreath, lighting it in a darkened part of the room will give it emphasis.
  • A darkened space naturally invites silence. If you are using a confession and forgiveness during Advent, use it in dimmed light, and build in more silence than usual.
  • If it is not your practice already, add a midweek evening worship service to this season to take advantage of a naturally darkened space. See the evening options in Holy Communion Setting 12 and the contemplative Service of Word and Prayer in All Creation Sings for some newer possibilities for such a service.
  • If you are leaning into a theme of joy for the season and darkness feels too somber, create some blue light. Placing gel filter sheets over can lighting creates color and bedecks a darkened room like a jewel.

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 Saturday, December 17, until Friday, 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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From sundaysandseasons.com.

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