First, it’s not divided up by days but by weeks. Some people enjoy having directed readings and activities every day; for others, it’s just one more thing to have to keep up with during December. You can take these ideas and turn them into more of a daily plan if you like. A few of the ideas are borrowed from our 2006 globally-focused calendar.
Second, it reminds us that Advent was meant to be a time of quiet and prayer--a fast. In times past and by many churches, that was taken quite literally. But whether we decide to give up meat or anything else during the month of December isn't as important as the attitude of our hearts. The (Lutheran-based) Spirithome.com website says, “There's a time to get ready by rejoicing that our God is not far away and unfamiliar with the struggles of human life, that Christ is here right now among His followers, that God has already begun to bring in the Kingdom, and that Christ will come again to make it clear who really runs the place. That's Advent.” (Spirithome has more history of Advent on this page.) It seems an appropriate time to focus on some of the more contemplative aspects of our Christian walk.
“Contemplative” has gotten a bad name for itself in some circles, as has the book I used as a source of the four themes: Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. I agree that there are issues with the book, but this isn’t the place to discuss them. Actually you don’t even need to like, own or use Discipline to follow this Advent calendar; you can easily improvise your own lists of ways to serve others and so on. Bill McKibben’s book Hundred Dollar Holiday follows many of the same lines, by pointing out how what was originally meaningful about holidays—a rare chance to enjoy special foods, music, clothes, etc.—has lost much of its impact in our well-fed, over-entertained culture. McKibben points out that “What we need and long for now are the gifts of time, meaningful family connections, periods of silence, a relationship with the divine.”
Advent, as well as Christmas, can be reclaimed from the glut of Winnie-the-Pooh chocolate Advent calendars.
No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, the disciplines of Simplicity, Solitude/Silence, Service, and Submission can speak to our hearts and help put the focus of the Advent season back on the One who was our example in all of these things. (If you have Celebration of Discipline, you can find meaningful readings and suggested Scriptures throughout those four chapters. You might notice that I put the four disciplines in a different order; I wanted to leave the most serious thoughts on Submission for the last few days before Christmas.)
You’re welcome to take this calendar in its somewhat rough form, and shape it into something more specific and meaningful to you and your family. Add Scriptures, books, or music that seem appropriate. I haven’t included symbols (the kind you can hang on a Jesse tree), but there are some that could work, either as small symbols or in your overall house decoration: natural symbols, including plants; symbols of light, including lamps, stars and candles; golden apples (“a word fitly spoken”); symbols of silence and prayer including praying hands, snow, mountains, or symbols of specific people who listened or who spent time in solitude. Symbols of service could include a towel and basin, helping hands, hidden things, small things, or hospitality symbols such as a wreath or an open door (also a Bible to symbolize sharing the Word of Life). The list of seven ways of submission would also suggest its own symbols: the Trinity, a Bible, family members, other people, the church, the poor, the earth (a globe).
As a final note: the very last chapter of Celebration of Discipline is about Celebration! Don’t forget to do that too! “As we prepare the manger for the Christ child, we also make room in our hearts and minds for Christ’s daily coming. We long for the Christ to return to fully express God’s wonderful ways once again. Such patient waiting and loving preparation embody the essence of Advent. Focus your thoughts on God’s wonderful ways and learn the goodness of waiting in God’s presence.” (“Waiting for God’s Wonderful Ways” Advent devotional, written by Carol E. Spencer, copyright 1993 Augsburg Fortress.)
Week 1, November 30-December 6: Simplicity, A Gift of Perspective
Suggested Songs and Hymns:
Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus; O Come O Come Emmanuel. I also like Ian White’s song “Focus My Eyes on You” (not available online for copyright reasons).
Talk about the tradition of Advent as a time of preparation. (What’s this all about?)
Read about the Year of Jubilee, when all property periodically went back to its originally owner. Play a “fractured” game of Monopoly (or another game, maybe a card game) where you do the same thing at pre-set times (every time the phone rings, or when a buzzer goes off); or play a game of Dreidel.
Read Jesus’ teachings on materialism. Prepare a collection box or bank for your family’s Advent giving.
Read about the need for inner simplicity: “first things first” (Celebration of Discipline pages 85-89). Serve a simple meal and pray for those who don’t have enough to eat.
Think about the simple things at Jesus’ birth: the stable, the animals, the shepherds, the manger.
Watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, and pay attention to Charlie’s attempt not to “let commercialism ruin my Christmas.” Read the article “What Charlie Brown Taught Me About Christmas Shopping.” Have a “do it with less” or “use what you have” challenge. (If you have a sense of humor, read Erma Bombeck’s story about her family’s disastrous “homemade Christmas.” I’m not sure which of her books it’s in—might be in At Wit’s End. Her story “A Gift of Toothpicks” is online, though. [2011 Update: that link isn't working: try this one http://wandascountryhome.com/christmas/chimes/ .] And if you like Erma’s often poignant humour, you should read her column “Grandfather’s Solitude,” dated December 25, 1979, and included in the book Forever, Erma.)
Focus on the three attitudes of inward simplicity and discuss how they reflect Jesus’ teaching against anxiety. (To receive what we have as a gift from God; to know that it is God’s business, not ours, to care for what we have; to have our goods available to others.) (Why is that not the same thing as being careless with our possessions?)
Read the ten rules of outward simplicity, and choose family activities that relate to them. Examples: Rule 1 says that we should purchase things based on their usefulness and practicality rather than as a status symbol. You could have a “useful fashion show” (a funny one), or think of some really useful Christmas presents.
Rule 3 is to make a habit of giving things away; you could have a cleanout and giveaway time. One fun idea (that could start a tradition) is to wrap up things that your own family members would like—a book you have enjoyed that is now officially “theirs”, or something else you’d like to give someone a “turn” with—and have a gift-opening ceremony. (The toilet plunger and dishrag are off limits.)
Rules 5 and 6 (Enjoy things without having to own them; learn to appreciate Creation) could inspire many family activities. One idea suggested in Celebration of Discipline is to enjoy a public park, library, etc., and we have found this especially appropriate during this time of year when there are (still) many public Christmas displays, churches with outdoor Nativity scenes, parks decorated with lights and so on. The library always seems to be quite dead during the last few days before Christmas, and there are usually lots of holiday books and music still sitting on the shelves.
Rule 6 might inspire some crafts using natural materials, or artwork based on Creation. The cinnamon-clay birds on Martha Stewart’s website are quite beautiful.
Rule 8 encourages plain, simple speech. Play a fun word game like Blurt, where the object is to describe something as clearly as possible. Or play the Dictionary Game (Balderdash) where the object is to write false definitions for obscure words. Or have one of those quizzes where you have to decipher obfuscated titles of Christmas carols or nursery rhymes.
Rule 10 is to avoid purchases that exploit or oppress others. What choices can we make this holiday—in gifts, in food, in decorations, etc.—that would carry that out?
Week 2, December 7-December 13: Solitude and Silence, A Gift of Prayer
Suggested Songs and Hymns:
As I am waiting, yielded and still ("Have Thine Own Way, Lord")
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…
Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand…
Read about Jesus’ times of solitude.
What should we do if we’re bored? Lonely? How can we learn both to deliberately seek out times of solitude, and to understand God’s blessings during lonely times when we would rather have company and activity? (How would you like to spend Christmas stuck in a lighthouse on an island? Read The Light at Tern Rock, by Julia L. Sauer.)
If you live where it snows, take a walk and enjoy the quietness. You could sing “In the Bleak Midwinter” or “Winds Through the Olive Trees.”
Have times of quiet together; pray for peace.
A church web page which no longer exists offered creative prayer suggestions for Advent, including “prayer walks” through a labyrinth outlined in the snow, or praying as you watch animals preparing for winter; or creating a “prayer mural” with headings such as “Who is coming?”
For fun: do some activity together without talking. (A “Monks’ Meal” is the summer-camp classic.)
For young children: you might like to read Evan’s Corner, by Ezra Jack Keats. How can we make sure that everyone in our family has space and quiet when they need it?
Read about people in the Bible who listened and waited: Mary (Mary and Martha); Anna and Simeon; Zechariah; the prophets.
Talk about ways of showing love without words.
Discuss why it is sometimes right to keep silent—but sometimes right to speak (e.g. wishing someone a Merry Christmas!). Play any word or counting game that involves answering back at the right time—or sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” or another song where everyone has to come in at the right place. If you have a big enough group, play “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.”
Week 3, December 14-December 20: Service, A Gift of Practicality
Suggested Hymns and Songs: Richard Gillard’s “Servant Song” (Brother Let Me Be Your Servant); Love Came Down at Christmas
“It is one thing to act like a servant; it is quite another to be a servant.”—Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
Post a list of small (or large) jobs that need doing, and have people cross them off as they get done. Or use a Job Jar.
Do “Secret Servant” deeds for each other or for someone outside your family. (If you’re collecting gift money, you can set the rule that if your deed is done without the other person seeing, then you get to put some money in the box.)
There are many lists available of “random acts of kindness” (such as at the site http://www.actsofkindness.org/). One list in my files is “31 Ways to Celebrate the Season of Giving,” by Mary Stalnaker, published in Woman’s Day 12/12/00. It includes ideas such as sending cards to soldiers, rounding up carts in the parking lot, offering rides, shoveling snow, and helping carry things.
Read Paula Palangi McDonald’s story “The Last Straw.” (Included in the book Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul, and also available through her website, http://paulamcdonald.com/index.htm )
Read the many kinds of service in Celebration of Discipline: the service of hiddenness, the service of small things, the service of charity (guarding another’s reputation), the service of being served, the service of courtesy, the service of hospitality, the service of listening, the service of bearing one another’s burdens, and the service of sharing the Word of Life with one another. (You can add to this list, or make up your own list together.) Choose activities based on the list.
Foster tells a story of personally being caught short by this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together: “The second service that one should perform in the Christian community is active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.” This reminds me of a story I once read (I apologize, I’ve forgotten the source) about a young seminary student who complained to the dean (I think it was—maybe it was the president of the college) about the state of the dorm bathrooms. The next time he went past the bathroom, he saw the dean (or whoever it was) in there scrubbing the toilet. (Obviously someone who understood what Bonhoeffer was saying.)
Week 4, December 21-24: Submission, A Gift of Peace
(This “week” is actually only four days long.)
Suggested Hymns and Songs:
The Huron Carol; Joy to the World; From Heaven Above to Earth I Come
Down in a lowly manger, the humble Christ was born,
And God sent our salvation that blessed Christmas morn. ("Go Tell It on the Mountain")
Submission is the reversal of the desire to be great. (So what’s wrong with saying, “You’re not the boss of me?”)
What is the only real reason Christians should pursue submission?
Read about the ways that Jesus humbled himself for our sake.
Read the seven Acts of Submission in Celebration of Discipline—how is the focus here different from last week’s list of ways to serve others? Choose activities that relate to this list. (Submission to the Triune God; to Scripture; to our family; to our neighbours and those we meet every day; to the Body of Christ; to the broken and despised; to the world. )
Let someone go ahead of you, take the last whatever at the store, or have the last piece of whatever. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Later, reflect on how you felt AND on how they reacted. Consider how few stories we’d have of Christmas-shopping fights (Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle-Me Elmo) if more people practiced submission; how few holiday fights we’d have over decorations or visiting or what kind of cranberry sauce to have. To extend the crazy-shopper scenario, you might watch the movie “Jingle All the Way” if your tastes run in that direction. (Preview first at ScreenIt.com.)
If your children watch “Arthur’s Perfect Christmas,” talk about how Uncle Fred’s gift shows true submission in action. (Spoiler here: Arthur breaks the gift he had bought for his mother, and tells his klutzy-but-sympathetic Uncle Fred; Fred secretly switches gift tags so that the present he bought reads “To Mom from Arthur.”)
On Christmas Eve, be sure to read John 3:16 and Philippians 2:5-8…"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." (KJV)
“For God so loved us, he sent the Savior.
For God so loved us, and loves me too.
Love so unending, I’ll sing Thy praises.
God loves His children, loves even me.”