The Meaning of Advent
Advent is the season in the Christian year of preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. Advent is a time to remember our longing and need for a Messiah, as well as look forward to our Savior's second coming. The word "advent" comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning "coming." During the Advent season we wait and hope in prayerful expectation, crying out together, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."
In the midst of holiday celebrations, Christmas carols, and exchanging gifts, Advent is meant to be a time of remembrance. In Advent we remember that we live in darkness and exile. We remember that we are crying out to God to save us. We remember that God promised us a Messiah and a new reign. We remember that the promise to us is Jesus Christ who has come and will come again.
Some people grow up with Advent traditions. For others, the concept of Advent may be new. Observing Advent can not only enrich your celebration of Christmas, but it can also be a powerful, shaping experience in your spiritual growth and relationship with God.
How to Observe Advent
As you prepare for Christmas, you may want to consider observing Advent through the practice of using an Advent wreath. For hundreds of years, Christians have used an Advent wreath and candles to inspire their anticipation and hope for the coming of Christ at Christmas. Through lighting candles, reading from the Bible, and praying, we remember the meaning of Christ's birth, and allow God to prepare our hearts to welcome Christ into our lives.
There is no set meaning for the candles of the Advent wreath, except for the center "Christ candle," which always signifies the birth of Christ. Some people see the candles as pointing to peace, joy, hope, and love. Others may have the candles symbolize key figures in the birth story of Jesus, such as Mary and Joseph, the angels, the wise men, and the shepherds.
I've created a guide for personal, family, or corporate worship that can accompany the lighting of the candles of the Advent wreath. You can use a real Advent wreath and candles, or simply make your own. In the center of the wreath, a white pillar candle like this one can be used. I encourage you to adapt the guide in whatever way fits you and your community best.
Weekly Advent Readings
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Advent Readings and Prayers Week 1: Waiting
Advent Readings and Prayers Week 2: Forgiveness
Advent Readings and Prayers Week 3: Joy
Advent Readings and Prayers Week 4: Coming of Christ
Advent Readings and Prayers: Christmas Celebration
Lord, help us to celebrate the season of Advent, and prepare for the coming of Jesus into our lives.
How do you celebrate Advent? Are there other ways that you prepare for Christmas? Please share in the comments.
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This is a continuation of "My Spiritual Practices," a blog series highlighting a variety of people through interviews about their spiritual life and practices.
I love learning from other people, and in particular, learning how they live out their faith in daily life. Each person being interviewed is sharing an intimate look at their lives. For that, I am grateful. My hope is that these interviews will offer us a snapshot of how different people experience God in their lives, and that they might inspire and guide us in our own unique spiritual journeys.
Eddy Ekmekji is husband to Rhoda, and father to Layla, Marco and Liam. He is currently the Associate Divisional Director in Greater Los Angeles with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He helps oversee ministry to 1 million students on 70 campuses in the four counties of Greater Los Angeles.
How do you connect with God? What spiritual practices and rhythms do you have?
There are four key rhythms and practices that have most helped me connect with God in this season of life.
1. Scripture reading, meditating and studying have always been a familiar environment to connect with God. This year, I've tackled reading through scripture in a year. And while so much of what I read doesn't quite sink in, it's probably just the practice of creating space in my life daily to read scripture that opens the door for me to connect with God. The other way I connect with God in scripture is through the Psalms. The Psalter has always been the prayer book of the people of God so a little over seven years ago I began meditating on one Psalm per month and working my way through the book. It will take me more than 12 years to absorb the entire book, and what I do is read through the Psalm of the month several times and let that shape my prayers. Some months, I'm invited into celebration and other months into lament. This practice has been a helpful way to learn from the ancients the diversity of ways to connect with God.
2. Due to some health concerns a couple years ago, I began to take up walking and over time the walks have created the environment for my soul to slow down and listen to God and listen to my soul’s desires and needs. I've adopted the Ignatian practice of examen as a way to connect with God.
3. I've always been a journaler. Journaling has been a helpful way for me to process my emotions, meditate on scripture and articulate my prayers.
4. About four months ago I started a daily gratitude journal. This has helped me slowly move my posture toward seeing the world through the lens of grace and joy rather than anxiety and disappointment.
What daily or weekly spiritual practices are most important to you?
In the past six months, one of the key ways that God helped me connect with him is the Ignatian practice of the Examen. There are different ways that people may do the Examen, but for me it rests on three basic questions: 1. Where did I see God’s presence today? 2. Where did I feel most distant from God today? (I then either repent/confess/lament depending on what seems the right response) 3. What do I want Jesus to do for me?
In addition to the Examen, reading the Psalm of the month on a daily basis is also an important way for me to connect with God.
On a weekly basis, I have a prayer partner where we connect every Sunday night on the phone and look back over our week through the Examen questions outlined above, and we pray for each other. We've been doing this for almost a year and have found it s really important way to celebrate and confess in community.
Describe the environment that helps you best connect with God.
I'm a fairly weak extrovert which means that I really enjoy and appreciate being with people and community but can also enjoy alone time. I have found that I need daily “alone times” to help me pay attention to my soul. My daily walks have become that sort of place where I can connect with what I feel and to be quiet enough to hear from God.
What tools or resources help you connect with God?
I’ve used a few resources. I generally think having some sort of devotional regiment helps me. This year it’s been reading through the Bible in a year. In previous years it’s been the lectionary, or devotions that match the season of the church (Advent, Lent, etc…) What I like about the lectionary is that by following it, I’m sort of on the same journey with millions of Christians around the world. I think that’s pretty cool.
I mentioned above that I use the Examen. I also have found the “Pray as You Go” podcast to be helpful as a devotional when driving. Finally, I like Pandora worship stations. I usually listen to some worship before other type of audio when driving. (Personally, I like a gospel music station)
How have your spiritual practices changed over recent years?
They've changed a lot over the years and what's hardest for my personality type is that I'm very resistant to change. As my seasons of life have changed (marriage, one child, two children, three children), I found myself working really hard to keep the practices that worked as a 21 year old. It probably took me 15 years to make peace with change.
I used to be very religious about keeping a particular kind of a daily quiet time whereas now if I find myself 1-2 days a week in a “traditional” quiet time, I count that as a success. Second, I'm much more focused on taking a monthly retreat day and twice a year overnight prayer retreats. These days have become critical in creating space in my schedule to hear from God and connect with him. These sort of days never felt as essential before I had kids.
Lastly, I would say that I've become a bit more sensitive to see God at work in the moments--as a companion in the mundane parts of my life--rather than a coach who connects with me at the start of the day, wishes me luck in the game, briefly connects with me at some halfway point and then debriefs the day with me at the end. That sort of image of God used to work when I was younger but now, I'm much more aware of God as with me all day.
On days when your schedule changes, are you able to adapt your spiritual practices to fit in with a different environment?
Not really if I'm honest. Change is tough for me. I've mostly learned to make peace that my schedules may throw off my environments. I have found that simple things like taking a walk and practicing gratitude have helped me resist the assaults on my schedule. And because so much of my schedule changes from day to day, the monthly retreats have been a helpful way to reset my soul.
Do you practice the Sabbath or spiritual retreat? If so, what does that look like for you?
I practice both. The Sabbath has not been as easy to practice as a parent of three. I tend to take my Sabbath from Saturday night to Sunday night. I usually take a fast from media and look to prioritize relational connections. On some Sabbaths, I've been able to carve in times for worship, reflections, readings and prayers. For example I usually have a spiritual formation book I only read on the Sabbath as a way to slowly digest how God may want to shape me. I'm not always successful on keeping the Sabbath as my family also demands so much attention. I think keeping the Sabbath has been the most difficult commandment for me to keep.
What people or relationships contribute most to your spiritual growth?
In this season, I have found my children and spiritual director to contribute to my spiritual growth. With my children, I don't think they intend to help me grow spiritually. If anything, it seems that they are much better at distracting me from Jesus, but a wise mentor once told me that God uses our children to disciple us. I think she's right. I've learned so much more about myself (failures and anxieties and insecurities) through parenting. It's as if the benefit of having children for me has been for God to expose the things that need attention.
The other person has been my spiritual director who has walked with me through most seasons of my life in the past 15 years. What I think a spiritual director has done for me is walk with me through these seasons of life and like a tour guide on a beautiful hike, he helps me stop and notice things that I may not notice on my own.
What gets in the way of your spiritual growth?
There's a lot of things I can point to as enemies of my spiritual growth. And I suppose some of those things are fairly common to many people (full family schedule, anxieties with work, tiredness, laziness). I think for me it's always been when I'm emotionally dishonest. What I mean by that is when I'm least aware of how I'm doing and how I'm feeling, I become less dependent on Jesus and most complacent with spiritual growth. It generally takes a lot of work for me to be self aware with my emotions, and to identify how things affect me. A lack of self-awareness generally pushes me to hide my emotions ( from others, from God and from myself), and that tends to get in the way from inviting Jesus to walk with me in my joys or disappointments.
What do you do when you get spiritually stuck?
Just general admittance that I'm spiritually stuck is usually a good first step toward getting unstuck. When I'm aware of being stuck, I have found that keeping some of my spiritual practices help me in the long run even if in the moment they feel unhelpful. It's like watching my children practice the piano. They rarely want to do it but we know that doing it is helpful for the long run.
Ironically, the other piece that gets me unstuck is to also be honest with whether a spiritual practice brings me life. Sometimes they don't and I've learned to be fine to drop things for a season as a reminder to me that God loves me regardless whether I did the Examen today or read through my Bible reading plan.
I guess this sounds confusing. On the one hand I work hard to keep the practices even if I don't feel they give me life and on the other hand, I give myself permission to abandon the practices that don't give me life.
So I wonder whether what gets me unstuck may boil down to holding a posture of being the beloved-- where I'm free to hold on to the familiar or abandon them as long as I remember that Jesus loves me regardless of my decision.
How do you connect with God through life transitions?
I’m not that intimidated by expected life transitions. If anything, I have found myself that much more sensitive to the presence of God in seasons of transitions. I think that’s partly because there were some key obedience moments in my life that birthed significant transitions. I think it sort of set a foundation for me that Jesus is with me during transition. So with that being said, I’m not sure I change much of what I do during a period of transition.
What is one particular way you’ve experienced God recently?
I mentioned earlier that holding on to the posture of being the beloved is the key to getting unstuck spiritually. Earlier this year, I had a significant moment with God as he affirmed this truth in me. While reading through Luke 15, the Lord spoke to me through the story of the two sons. I found myself like the older son, caught up in the “shoulds” of my spiritual life. And what stood out to me in the story was the conversation of the older son with his father, where he complained that the Father has never honored his obedience and has never given him a young goat to celebrate with his friends.” That line stung me. The older son had been so caught up in the “shoulds” that he didn’t even know how to be honest with his own desires with his father. He didn’t even seem to know how to ask for a young goat. Through that story, I found the Lord expose my own inability to articulate my own desires with my good Father. Perhaps like the older son, so much of my identity had been caught up in doing good and mistrusting my desires (after all, don’t our desires lead us to become like the younger son?), that I had struggled to see God as the good Father who shares everything he owns with me. That story has birthed a new journey for me to discover my desires and to share them with the Lord. Rather than just listen to the voice that asks me what I should be doing, I’m now much more sensitive to hear the voice that asks me what I want to do.
What bit of wisdom from your own spiritual journey do you want others to know?
Not to get political, but when President Obama acknowledged that his successor would be Donald Trump, he said in a speech, “The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag, and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back.” I think that’s true for our spiritual lives. I don’t think it’s really a straight line. I’d like to think that it’s a straight line where every day I’m that much more Christ-like and that much more mature in my spirituality. But I think it’s more of a zig zag. I think some seasons I feel that much more confident in my identity in the Lord and in other seasons, I find myself frustratingly disconnected. I think our journey of faith needs to be one where we make peace with the zigging and zagging and just trust that somehow over time we find ourselves knowing the Lord and being known in more profound ways than we’d ever imagine.
Eddy is also the co-author with Tyler Watson of Embrace the Coming Light: Daily Readings and Prayers For Advent. It is a wonderful resource for reflection and prayer that I've enjoyed reading during several seasons of Advent.You can purchase a copy here.
If you enjoyed this post, check out these related posts:
My Spiritual Practices: An Interview With Cat Moore
My Spiritual Practices: An Interview With Mark Hage
My Spiritual Practices: An Interview With Brianna Wilkerson
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I was invited by my friend Brianna Wilkerson, a health and wellness coach, to write a guest post on her blog Made Well. Here is an excerpt:
A friend of mine asked recently, “How can I have a closer relationship with God?” This friend shared with me her desire to draw closer to God, to experience God more in her daily life, and to learn to walk with God. There was something inside her compelling her to want more in her relationship with God than what she was experiencing.
This desire expressed by my friend is something I, and perhaps many of us, resonate with. We long to know God more deeply, we want to experience an intimate relationship with God.
The good news for us is that God longs for a closer relationship with us as well. Revelation 3:20 says this, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” God himself is standing at the door, waiting for us to welcome him into our lives. The moment we open the door, we get to enjoy intimate relationship with God.
No matter where we are at, no matter where our starting point, we can always go deeper in knowing God. Intimacy and connection with God can grow. Like any relationship, the one we have with God is a two-way street. It takes both God and me to draw nearer to each other. So if God truly is drawing near to me, then what can I do to draw near to him?
To read the rest of the post (and get lots of great health resources) head over to Brianna's blog Made Well here: 3 Ways to Deepen Your Relationship With God.
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Aloha! I'm Larissa, a spiritual director and ministry planter. As I seek to know God more, and help others know God more, these are my reflections about the spiritual journey.
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