November 26, 2018
Quick Links:
Led by the Holy Spirit,
St. John's mission is to inspire people to grow into the heart and mind of Christ by engaging together in worshiping, serving, and spiritual formation.


A Field Guide to Advent


This week’s column offers information on the season of Advent and traditions that accompany it. Some of this material appeared about six years ago in The Rector’s Pen. A portion of today’s column is quoted and paraphrased from Additional citations are footnoted.

A mere four weeks long, the season of Advent has a tendency to come and go before many of us can take the opportunity to settle into its themes of wonder and expectancy. Coming as it does between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it catches us in a season we are giving or taking final exams, traveling to see family, shopping for Christmas gifts, entertaining, or enjoying the first ski days of winter. This year, Advent begins on Sunday, December 2nd, and it makes sense to offer you some ways to observe this short season so that you can enjoy its richness in the very midst of the flurry of the weeks to come.


The word "advent," from the Latin adventus (Greek parousia), means "coming" or "arrival." The season of Advent is focused on the "coming" of Jesus as Messiah (the Christ or Anointed One). Our worship, scripture readings, and prayers not only prepare us spiritually for Christmas (his first coming), but also for his eventual second coming. This is why the Scripture readings during Advent include both Old Testament passages related to the expected Messiah, and New Testament passages concerning Jesus' second coming as judge of all people. Also, passages are read about John the Baptist, the precursor who prepared the way for the Messiah.


The New Testament identifies Jesus as the expected Jewish Messiah, although Jesus was not the Messiah most Jews at the time expected: a warrior who would forcibly overthrow the Romans. The gospel writers are clear that Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom, or deliver the Jewish people from the Romans, but rather he proclaimed a heavenly kingdom available to Jew and Gentile alike. Even though early Christians understood that Jesus reigned in the Church, they knew that all things had not been subjected fully to him, so Christians understood that there existed a future finalization of his kingdom. Thus, early Christians eagerly awaited the return of Jesus in glory "to achieve the definitive triumph of good over evil," when he would judge the living and the dead. These prominent Scriptural themes form the basis of our Advent season.       

The earliest mention of an Advent celebration is in the mid-4th century. Advent as a distinct church season began to solidify in the 7th century.  The Reformation de-emphasized many church seasons and customs, Advent among them. Roman Catholics and Anglicans retained the Advent season and today more non-liturgical churches are observing it as a way to prepare for the coming of Our Lord.      


Christians observe Advent by lighting successive candles on an Advent wreath, accompanied by readings, prayer, and song. Advent is also a time to reflect on the year past and ask forgiveness for all the ways we have fallen short of God’s dream for us. It is a time to celebrate with God the newness of life (made visible to us in the infant Jesus) that is ours to experience when we offer up ourselves to him to use according to his will. Advent has also become a time to engage in works of charity, outreach, and service to others.

During the last seven days of Advent (December 17-23), some Christians pray or sing the “O Antiphons” as the sun sets. Each of these seven short prayers describes a different name or title for the Messiah, and each references some portion of the prophecy of Isaiah about the coming Messiah. [1]  The precise origin of these antiphons is unknown but they appear to have been in use in monasteries by the sixth century. Interestingly, the first letter of each antiphon (read backward!) comprises the acrostic “Ero Cras”, which in Latin means “Tomorrow, I shall be (or be there).”

If you’d like to fold the antiphons into your evening prayers, here is a set. The Latin word is included where indicated to create the acrostic.

Dec. 17— Read: Isa. 11: 2-3

Pray: O Wisdom (Sapientia), coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Dec. 18—Read: Isa. 11: 4-5

Pray: O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Dec. 19—Read: Isa. 11:1

Pray: O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you, kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us and delay no longer.

Dec. 20—Read: Isa. 22:22

Pray: O Key of David (Clavis David) and scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Dec. 21—Read: Isa. 9:2

Pray: O Morning Star (Oriens), splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Dec. 22—Read: Isa. 2:4 and 64:8

Pray: O King of the nations (Rex Gentium), and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.

Dec. 23—Read: Isa. 7:14

Pray: O Emmanuel, our king, and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.


Since Advent looks forward to Christ's birth and Incarnation, it is an appropriate way to begin the Church Year. However, Advent is not part of the Christmas season itself, but a preparation for it. Thus, we do not sing Christmas hymns, or use Christmas readings, until December 24th/25th, the first day of the Christmas season.

The liturgical color for Advent is blue or violet (except for the Third Week of Advent, often called Gaudete Sunday, in which rose may be used), and the season is somewhat penitential, similar to Lent, although not so explicit and emphatic. The character of worship during Advent is more solemn, quiet, and less festive than during other times of the year. The use of blue or violet reflects the general themes of Advent: penitence (generally expressed more in terms of expectant hope) and royalty.


1. Create a nativity scene, day by day. Using a large piece of butcher paper and markers, or a blank table-top and figurines, build a manger scene by drawing or adding one character, feature, or animal each day. Let the child choose which item to add each day. On the 25th, add the infant Jesus. Here are 24 more suggestions: Barn, hay, feed trough or manger, star, cow, donkey, 3 sheep, camel, dog, cat, mouse, 3 angels, 3 shepherds, 3 wise men, Mary, and Joseph. (You could also add photos of the members of your family, one at a time, symbolizing that you too are waiting for the birth of Our Lord.)

2. Volunteer as a family   Make the time to serve at your favorite humanitarian non-profit. If your children are too young to help out in this way, engage them in baking and decorating a batch of cookies (or decorating a bag or box to carry them in) and take the cookies to the staff people who run these organizations.

3. Practice anointing!  Teach your children that Jesus is the Messiah, and that “Messiah” in Hebrew means “anointed one.” In Greek, Cristos or “Christ” also means “anointed one.” In the ancient world, olive oil was poured on the head to anoint someone a king. Jesus is called King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The people believed that anyone who was anointed would do great things and would be a blessing to others. Repeat this teaching often, or write it on the family bulletin board or the fridge. Try anointing your kids in the bathtub with a little olive oil, and say, “I anoint you to do great things tomorrow/or this week!” Keep a little bottle of olive oil handy and give family members permission to dab a little oil on each other’s foreheads every day, saying, “I anoint you to do great things and to be a blessing to others today!”


1. Posadas — The word “posada” means “shelter” or “lodging.” This Advent custom, popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world, re-enacts Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and their search for lodging along the way. The ritual lasts for nine days (Dec. 16-24). A group of people travels from house to house on a route, taking the role of pilgrims seeking lodging. Those inside the homes are innkeepers who refuse them. At the last home, all are invited in for prayer and refreshments.

2. Jesse Tree — a family tree to the extreme! Each day of Advent a homemade ornament is added to the Jesse Tree, a small tree or simply a bare branch. These symbolic ornaments can each represent a prophecy foretelling of Christ. Other variations include creating ornaments that represent the ancestors in the lineage of Christ.

3. The Advent candle — In the late 19th century, Advent clocks or Advent candles began to make an appearance in many homes in Germany. Dates are marked in a row down the side of the Advent candle. Every day, the candle is lit and then burned down to the next date. By Christmas Day, the entire candle has been used.

4. Santa Lucia (St. Lucy) — is remembered on the 13th of December. On the morning of St. Lucia’s Day, the eldest daughters in households dress in white robes with red sashes and wreaths with lighted candles on their heads. They carry a breakfast of coffee, gingerbread cookies, and sun-colored “St. Lucia” saffron buns to their parents’ bedrooms. The younger daughters of the household follow them carrying a single candle. Their brothers, called “star boys,” wear tall, pointed caps.

5. Paper lanterns — A tradition most likely adopted from Christian missionaries, in China, Christians light their homes with decorative paper lanterns. They might also decorate a “Tree of Light” with paper chains or flowers.

6. Candy canes — Did you know that candy canes started as a way to teach children about Jesus? Legend has it that candy canes were invented by a cathedral choirmaster as a way to keep children quiet during a Christmas Eve service. The design of the candy, though, was meant to help children remember the shepherds who visited Jesus

[1] The entire section about the O Antiphons is drawn from this article.

[2] Quoted from