Advent activities put the holy back into the holidays

Waiting for Christmas together

By Sherry Blackman | Presbyterians Today
Smiling children in angel outfits - long white robes with wings - participate in the living Nativity.

First Presbyterian Church of Spirit Lake, Iowa, joins other churches for a “progressive” living Nativity. Visitors make their way around town to see the story of Christ’s birth unfold. Here, the First Presbyterian Church angels bring good tidings of great joy for all. Courtesy of First Presbyterian Church of Spirit Lake

’Tis the season of holy anticipation — and unholy madness. To encounter the holy, and to counteract the madness, churches are offering creative ways to slow down and smell the Christmas trees.

Here’s a roundup of some of the ways churches are helping their communities be still, breathe in the incarnation and carry hope into the world.

Advent-ure Camp

Last year, Ramsey Presbyterian Church in Ramsey, New Jersey, held a one-day Vacation Bible School on the first Saturday in Advent. Children were taught about the traditions of Advent with an emphasis on the meaning of the Advent wreath and the four candles that would be lit in the following weeks.

According to the Rev. Steve Huston, the church partnered with Camp Johnsonburg, a Presbyterian camp and conference center in Johnsonburg, New Jersey, that provided two camp staff to keep the energy level high all day. Everyone received an Advent calendar and an Advent liturgy for families to use at home.

“The added benefit for the parents was having a kid-free day to decorate the house, shop for Christmas, or just have coffee with friends,” Huston said. “It also allowed the church to invite other families from the community to participate in our Advent worship and activities.”

‘Progressive’ living Nativity

First Presbyterian Church of Spirit Lake in Spirit Lake, Iowa, joins with other churches in the area for a “progressive” living Nativity.

People travel from one church to another to witness the Nativity story unfold before them.

The Methodist church presents the annunciation of Christ’s birth to Mary, while the nondenominational church in town acts out the innkeeper’s refusal to let Mary and Joseph stay in the inn. First Presbyterian is where the angels appear to the shepherds. Lastly, the Lutheran church dramatizes Mary, Joseph and the Christ child.

“It’s a one-time event that happens during Advent,” said the Rev. Michael Gewecke, associate pastor of First Presbyterian of Spirit Lake. “We attempt to tell the story in a way that can be heard in new ways. The challenge is to tell it in-depth and in its simplicity.”

Yoga Advent

How about a little yoga during the Advent season? While the practice of yoga has its roots in Hinduism, the Rev. Sue Washburn of Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, says that in the Christian context, yoga “enables participants to care for the flesh and bone and muscle that embody our spirituality.”

Having practiced yoga for a decade, Washburn recently offered what she called “Yogadvent,” instructing a small, once-a-week class of a half-dozen beginners on simple yoga postures and breathing techniques. Quiet music played and candles were lit to lend a contemplative feel to the room. Church member Paula Walker found the one-hour class to be comforting with its attention on prayer, meditation and Scripture.

“The class made the physicality of the incarnation more profound for me, gave me a better perspective during the Advent season and moved me away from commercialism,” Walker said.

Advent-in-a-Box

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to offer families everything they need to experience and learn about Advent all in one box? Families at First Presbyterian Church in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, have just that.

Each Advent, the Rev. Nicole C. Atkinson, the associate pastor for youth and educational ministries, offers Advent-in-a-Box for families to bring the spirit of the season home.

Each week there is a little bag inside the box. In the bag is a card with a word, a Scripture passage and a prayer on one side, and a devotional and an activity on the other, Atkinson says.

For example, if the passage is “Pray without ceasing,” and the word is “pray,” the family is encouraged to write an individual prayer on each strip of paper provided in the box and form a paper prayer chain. Every time a family member walks by the paper chain, he or she would take a link from the chain and pray for whatever or whoever is written on that strip of paper throughout Advent.

“Advent-in-a-Box encourages people to be still, to be contemplative and to sit down together,” said Atkinson. “It’s a simple way to help our congregational members connect their faith with what’s going on around them and consider how we offer ourselves to others and to God.”

Advent giving

Looking for ways to give to those most in need during the season in which the church celebrates the birth of the Christ child, Krista Lovell, a certified Christian educator, has the congregation participate in an interactive worship service at Faith Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama. For three Sundays in Advent, the congregation participates in intergenerational worship stations set up around the church. The stations, says Lovell, are designed to encourage contemplation and action.

One year the church set up five worship stations. The first four were stations that provided time to read, paint a church-wide mural, learn about the symbols of light and create a centerpiece of four brown bags for the home. At the fifth worship station, titled “Reverse and Reach Out,” congregants were challenged to read and reflect on different translations of the story of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.

“We ask them to pause to wonder about the lives of Mary and Joseph. What would they eat? Would they be warm? What would they need to care for a newborn baby?” said Lovell. The reflection questions then led to how to fill up each of the four bags in the centerpiece that they made with items to help others.

“For example, food for week one, warm clothing for week two, toiletries for week three and baby items for week four in Advent,” Lovell said.

Lovell says the reflection questions helped families better understand the humanity of the holy family.

“Connecting the holy family’s needs to those of our community highlights the humanity of all of God’s children. The visual impact of four brown bags sitting together make a statement in houses filled with holiday color and glitter. While we decorate with stuff — for some there is only a brown bag to hold their possessions,” Lovell said.

Children’s Advent celebration

During the first week of Advent, children and their families at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis are invited to share table fellowship with a simple supper and activities that center on those who waited for and welcomed the Messiah.

Families come to the open-house event and may be invited to become Magi and make a kaleidoscope to look to the stars. Some may choose to sit and create an Advent wreath for their home.

“Advent is a season of hopeful expectancy and of surprises,” said the Rev. Christopher Henry. “One of the gifts of our events oriented toward children is the children’s ability to surprise and delight us. By combining artistic and creative projects with storytelling, community-building and a healthy dose of mystery, we capture some of the wonder that makes the season so unique in the church year.”

The church also encourages the Advent celebration and learning to continue at home by equipping families with take-home materials and resources.

“I’ve always loved Madeleine L’Engle’s poetic pronouncement when she wrote, ‘Had Mary been filled with reason/there’d have been no room for the child.’ This event leaves room for wonder,” Henry said.

The wonder continues right up to the last week in Advent, when Second Presbyterian invites people to walk the Bethlehem labyrinth. The labyrinth offers a place to pause in quiet prayer and contemplate the unfolding mystery of God’s incarnational love and to listen to God’s still, small voice. Interactive prayer stations around the labyrinth encourage children to engage in the story as well, Henry says.

Angels among us

Who are the angels that we read about in Scripture? Last year First Presbyterian Church of Burlington, North Carolina, explored the angels who announced the Good News of the birth of the Messiah in an event called “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! Advent Festival.” Held on the first Sunday of Advent, the church provided several hands-on opportunities, including painting, working with clay, decorating angel cookies, creating angels from paper and more.

Charlotte Allbright, director of Christian formation and education, explains that the church does a different Advent festival every year for families and children. In the past the church held festivals centered on the shepherds and another on the Nativity, all of which included inviting local artists to assist with the variety of hands-on projects.

“This is an outreach to the wider community, reaching families and children who typically do not attend church,” Allbright said. “While an evangelistic tool, it also gives children the opportunity to receive foundational stories of our faith.”

The church also ministers to those whose hearts are heavy during this season of darkening days through its Advent Prayer Center that is open daily in December.

“This is a shared community experience, where we hold each other in light and love during this season of waiting,” said Allbright. The Advent Prayer Center offers several hands-on, meditative and reflective spiritual practices — from writing a name on a ribbon and tying it to a wall, like a wailing wall, to posting words from a newspaper on a wall as a way to pray for the world, to offering paper hearts that can be written upon and placed in a bowl of water and watched as the paper dissolves.

“The Advent Prayer Center is a place of silence, where burdens can be laid down, where solitude and ritual become ways that the healing balm of faith can anoint even the most broken heart,” said Allbright.

Sherry Blackman is the pastor of Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania.

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