Christians observe Advent as a season in which we begin again. We start over. We begin a new church year. We return to the starting line, again.
The four weeks of Advent, leading to Christmas, also occurs at a time when everyone is getting ready to turn the page to a new calendar year. It is a time of drafting New Year resolutions, of wiping the slate clean, of starting some new discipline, of beginning again. These seasons are carried on the backs of hope and promise for something good, something better, and something new for our lives.
Although we feel the initiative rests with us to get the ball rolling on these good things, it’s a new beginning that doesn’t start with us, paradoxically. Our action to pray, to seek justice, to exercise, etc. is a response.
Liturgy acts this way. “The Lord be with you,” says the worship leader. And our response: “And also with you.” The prayer of Advent begins when another speaks a word to us. These scriptures upon which we reflect and those we hear read during worship are not ones worship leaders and preachers choose willy-nilly – our favorite, pocket bible verses.
No, in churches that follow a lectionary, these are assigned readings for the season. They were given to us. Advent prayer is essentially a prayer of response to something already there, already given. Our starting over and our returning to the Lord, happen because God is speaking a word to us.
Some fifteen years ago at the beginning of my parish ministry I remember visiting Mrs. Rose – I’ll call her. Mrs. Rose was well into her 90s when I began monthly visits to her home – she lived alone. She didn’t say much, not one for chit-chat, talking about the weather, no. She knew I came with the Eucharist, the Holy Communion.
So, we got right down to business. I would start the prayers – of confession, absolution, and consecration. And without even looking into the book for the words, she would join right in. This happened each time I visited her.
There were times I brought a prayer in her native language, German. I would start reading the 23rd Psalm in German, start praying the Lord’s Prayer in German, or sing a hymn she learned, and memorized, at her confirmation some 80 years ago. And each time I started into those readings and songs, she needed me only to begin – then she was able to join in and complete the prayer.
She represented for me a life lived in response to the new thing God does every day in our lives.
I sat by her deathbed in hospital some years later. Mrs Rose didn’t say anything anymore. And what she did say didn’t make a whole lot of sense, whenever family came to chat. But she was awake, aware of other people’s presence, listening carefully. And whenever I began those prayers she had learned by heart, especially the German ones, she launched into a near perfect recitation.
What word is God speaking to you this season? And are you willing to trust that word from God, in order to take the first, risky step towards the new thing God is doing? And live your life in response to the good, unexpected thing God is doing and saying?
Like Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25), who was willing to go against convention, and maintain his relationship with Mary — all from a dream he had from God.