The Advent—a permanent blessing

Many people are familiar with the popular Advent calendars that can be found in many stores this time of year. Starting with December 1, their little windows offer a kind of "count-down" to Christmas. But fewer people know that this time of the year was once referred to as a "lesser Lent," and was a time of penitence and prayer that even included fasting. It was a season of preparation for the coming of the Christ child but also for the "second coming," which among early Christians was felt to be imminent. People wanted to be spiritually prepared to meet Jesus when he came in glory.

The form of Advent evolved over the centuries, but crystallized as a four-week period, starting in late November or early December, during which some churches hold additional services or have special ceremonies such as the lighting of the candles in an Advent wreath. This time can include prayer, fasting, self-examination, and repentance.

The Sentinel's news editor, Rosalie Dunbar, talked with SHIRLEY PAULSON, a Christian Science practitioner who holds a master's degree in theological studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary with a focus on Christian history from apostolic times forward. Their conversation focused on how a spiritual approach to Advent can deepen the celebration of Christmas.

Maybe we should talk a little bit about Advent and what the candles on an Advent wreath are meant to symbolize, because it's such a nice way to capture the qualities that are associated with this time.

Well, the first candle to be lit during the four weeks is called the prophet's candle—referring to the prophecies of the Messiah's coming. It symbolizes hope. The Bethlehem candle is next, and it's associated with Jesus' humble birth, but the quality it promotes is the peace we get from finding humility in ourselves. Joy is the third candle, and it's symbolized by the shepherd's candle because the shepherds came and rejoiced. The fourth is love, and it's the angels' candle, referring to the angels who sang of the good news and the everlasting kingdom. There maybe some variation on how the candles are identified, but that's one tradition, anyway.

There's a great emphasis on the celebratory parts of Christmas but not so much on the serious nature of what Jesus' birth actually symbolizes. But repentance was a part of the spiritual preparation for the season. Even now, thinking about repentance is still valid, don't you think?

Oh, absolutely I do. All of the things that go into preparing the way for Jesus have to do with understanding Advent. It's interesting that Christians have developed this thought even centuries after Jesus actually came—that they've tried to figure out what it means to prepare. And I think John the Baptist's message of repentance is very much a part of it.

The problem is if we don't repent, then we're trying to squeeze the entire story of Jesus into our human ways and means and opinions, without seeing it his way. Advent is a two-way experience—we come to it, and also, it comes to us. And if we don't renew or change our thinking, then we're not welcoming its coming to us.

I've heard the phrase, "Look again," or "View again," in connection with repentance, but I think sometimes it also has to do with an ability to look at one's failings and contrast them with the spiritual reality of one's perfection.

I think so, too, because repentance also means "turn around," and to do that you have to look at a whole new universe, and let go of the things that you were holding on to. Repentance is agreeing to drop the things you've outgrown and welcome this new view of God's kingdom.

Sometimes I think people dread repentance because they think it means they're bad and deserve to be scolded.

That's one reason a lot of Christians have moved away from the whole subject of repentance. A day of judgment sounds so awful. But the reason we don't need to be afraid of a day of judgment is that we're happy to have the false things judged out of our lives and cast out, so we can find our true selves as God originally made us in His image and likeness. And it's good to have that judgment happen.

And that lifts the burden off us, instead of making us feel bad. What about the meaning of the "second coming" in Advent?

We tend to celebrate Christmas by thinking of the baby Jesus, but I'm intrigued by the way Mary Baker Eddy talked about advent, because she referred to the second appearing of Jesus as being a spiritual advent of the advancing idea of God (see Retrospection and Introspection, p. 70). If we could see the second coming as a more spiritual view of everything that Jesus did for us—essentially, a view of the Christ—I think it might help us understand the purpose of his first coming.

Let's take a look at what the Christ-presence actually does within our lives when we welcome it in.

I think it's good to know that the Christ helps us to repent because sometimes it's hard to know that we need to repent. The joy of Christ is that it makes us feel so loved, we can trust turning around, seeing ourselves anew. It provides the light for our feet so we know what steps to take, and it's always safe because it's the voice of God. It's leading us into the light, where we see ourselves truly as God's children, reflecting our Father-Mother.

Mary Baker Eddy's book Science and Health gives a road map to this more spiritual way of living. Without something to guide us, life could just be a mishmash of lots of different thoughts. But having a book that lays it out as a Science makes a difference.

It's true that what she's done by describing Advent in a spiritual way is to make it clear that we're not lost. The gift of Advent doesn't lead us partially into matter and partially into Spirit where we're lost—but rather, clearly, distinctly, it leads to the conscious reflection of God.

And it does this in a way that people can understand and apply to their lives. She wrote about advancing steps of spiritual understanding (see Science and Health, p. 513), and to me, that spiritual light comes as you get a higher and more multifaceted view of the truths in the Bible and in her writings.

That's why I think it's cool to have the concept of a second coming, because it represents the upward movement of thought. I don't think it's just one moment but rather it represents the fact that you're going to keep moving, keep progressing. With this more spiritual perspective, we can see that the second coming is always taking place—the Christ is always presenting itself in our thought and guiding us forward.

Your comment just reminded me of the statement in Science and Health "The time for the reappearing of the divine healing is throughout all time ..." (p. 55 ). It's a continuous unfolding of greater and greater understanding.

How encouraging that is if we feel like we're stuck or aren't being healed or are grieving. Even if we feel we're lost in matter, Christ's promise is always there for us.

And one way to renew our understanding of the promise could be to spend the Christmas season just quietly thinking about its spiritual nature and how it applies to one's life. If someone wanted to do that, do you have some thoughts to offer?

I think as we look for and cherish spiritual qualities, especially hope, peace, joy, and love—qualities that symbolize the traditional Christmas wreath—as well as welcoming repentance, we're ready to celebrate Advent.

That's a great point. Individually, we can also ask ourselves, How much peace am I feeling today? How much hope am I feeling? Have I really experienced repentance? Maybe even keep a little diary of ways in which we expressed these and the other spiritual qualities you mentioned.

Returning to the word advent as meaning "coming to," I love the mental image of God providing the Christ, which comes to us, and that the Christ is also what enables us to come to God. So it's a coming together that God has provided. And through it, we'll find in ourselves that God has given us peace and hope and joy and love. By accepting these gifts from God, we're able to participate in our own welcoming of Christ, and at the same time feel closer to God. So He gives us the means to do it, and the desire to do it.

What you're saying, to me anyway, is that if you approach the Christmas holiday from a spiritual basis, then Spirit and the love of Christ will shape what you do, and where and how you do it.

The joy you gain is that you find the permanence of the good things. Holidays will come and go, but you will be left with something that's permanently blessing you. When you really experience that, it truly is an advent.

December 17, 2007

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