As a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, I didn’t learn what Advent was until last December, during my first year in seminary. A formerly-Lutheran-turned-Episcopalian colleague of mine mentioned that it was her favorite holiday, and she shared some of her rituals—the wreath with four candles, the passages from the New Testament, the wall hangings her mother-in-law had made for her. I started to get a glimmer of what this holiday meant for her, but I still didn’t really understand.
So, like any good Unitarian Universalist, I turned to the ultimate source of truth. (The dictionary.)
The word itself is derived from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.”
A period of expectation and anticipation. A time for waiting. A time for preparation.
Because something wonderful is coming. And we must make ourselves ready for it.
But what is it? What is it that is coming, that is so wonderful we must spend four weeks preparing for it?
In the Christian tradition, two thousand years ago, we are told that angels brought the news that a child would be born, and he would save humankind. Prophets predicted his course. Wise sages and humble shepherds journeyed from far-off lands, following the promise of a distant but brilliant star.
These people had a long way to travel, full of wonder and anticipation. It took some time for them to arrive, both at their physical destination and at their spiritual realization that the hope of all humanity rested in the infinite potential of a newborn child.
Advent reminds us that the hope of all humanity is renewed each night a child is born. And that makes each night a holy night.
As we enter this holy time of Advent, we are invited to be the traveler and the child, the prophet and the promise. We are given this period to journey inward and prepare ourselves for the blessing of hope and the possibility of a miracle.
This year, the start of Advent also aligns with the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, which began the night of December 1st and ended December 9th. Also called the “Festival of Lights,” it commemorates a miracle that happened two hundred years before the birth of that precious child.
The temple in Jerusalem had been desecrated by the armies of Syria, and the Jewish people had to rededicate it. However, when they got inside, they found that there was only enough oil to keep the Eternal Flame burning for a single day. They went to go make more oil, but the process took eight days.
And then the miracle happened. That flame stayed lit for eight days until fresh oil had been consecrated. Thus the Festival of Lights—Hanukkah—lasts for eight days, in memory of a time when the sacred flame, according to all natural laws and logical reason, should have gone out. The flame should have gone out. But it didn’t.
So this year, Advent also reminds us to have faith in our own flame. We have, at some point, stood on the steps of our temple and found ourselves surrounded by destruction. We might think our flame should have gone out. Yet we are here. And we celebrate that.
In the pagan calendar, Advent falls between two festivals: Samhain, which we interpret today as Halloween; and Yule, which falls on the winter solstice and is celebrated just before Christmas.
Advent marks the time leading up to the winter solstice—which is the longest, darkest night of the year, when the ground is frozen and our breath crackles the air, and our primitive hearts begin to wonder if the sun will ever return.
And then our swiftly tilting planet begins to pull back from the dark void of space. The day after the solstice is just a little bit brighter and longer than the day before. And our hearts breathe a sigh of relief that the sun has not left us to wait forever in the darkness.
The period of waiting is over. The light has come.
Advent. From the Latin adventus, meaning “coming.”
The hope of all humanity is coming, with the birth of an ordinary child.
The miracle of an eternal flame is coming, though it may burn in a temple of destruction.
The promise of the light is coming, returning at the dawn after the longest, darkest night.
Something wonderful is coming.
And we must make ourselves ready for it.
This sermon was presented on December 2, 2010 at the chapel service for United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minnesota where I am working on my Master of Divinity degree. The service opened with the song “Each Night a Child is Born” from Jason Shelton’s CD The Fire of Commitment. The service ended with the congregation singing Peter Mayer’s “Where is the Light?” from his Midwinter CD. Readings included: Let There Be Light by Andrew Pakula; Dark and Light, Light and Dark by Jacqui James; The Moment of Magic by Victoria Safford; and Between the Dawn and Dusk by Carl Seaburg.
This sermon was also intended to be presented at Groveland Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on December 12, 2010, but the service was canceled due to severe weather conditions.