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Amid Christmas hype, don't forget the Advent season

Congregations are working to remind Christians of the importance of the weeks-long celebration of Christ's birth that starts Sunday.

December 01, 2007|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

Christmas certainly is a day of joy, but as the Rev. Mark D. Roberts sees it, special pleasures can be found in Advent, the Christian season of reflection leading up to Dec. 25.

"There is an underlying sense of joy in the expectation," said Roberts, who until recently was the longtime pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. By his own description, Roberts is an "Adventophile -- a lover of Advent" and has written extensively on the subject.

"Advent," he said, "is getting in touch with our own sense of yearning for God."

Advent often is overshadowed by the pageantry -- or commercialism -- of Christmas, but some congregations, such as Irvine Presbyterian, are working to remind Christians of the significance of the four-week holy season, which for most of the 2 billion Christians worldwide begins Sunday. It's also a time of beginnings. In the Western branch of Christianity, the new church year starts Sunday as well.

At the Irvine church on Sunday, congregants will begin using a devotional written by fellow parishioners especially for this year's Advent journey.

"Often, we look at our calendar and realize that Christmas has almost arrived and we have yet to take a moment to truly reflect on the greatest gift we will receive this season, the reminder of Jesus' earthly arrival as a tiny, helpless infant boy, who is our Savior," Tiffany Elliott wrote in the booklet's introduction.

Elliott also suggested that readers make time -- even if it's just 10 minutes a day -- to reflect on God's teachings and their relevance in their lives.

The 750-member congregation also will observe the tradition of lighting the first of five candles in an Advent wreath. Three purple candles symbolize penitence and solemnity, a pink one represents hope, and the white "Christ Candle," lighted on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, stands for a joyful celebration of Jesus' birth.

Advent, meaning "arrival" or "coming" from the Latin adventus, centers on the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of a Messiah.

For the Eastern branch of Christianity, comprising about 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, Advent began Nov. 15. Sometimes called "Little Lent" or "Smaller Lent," Advent is a time of spiritual discipline, such as fasting. Like Lent, it is observed for 40 days.

"The whole point of the Advent is to make us more mindful of the blessings that we have by not overdoing it," said Father John Bakas, dean of St. Sophia Cathedral, a Greek Orthodox church in Los Angeles. "It's a form of asceticism -- spiritual self-discipline. A lot of people in our culture have no clue of the meaning of the word asceticism."

Christian theologians say Advent carries two themes: It celebrates the gift of Christ's coming as a baby in Bethlehem and reminds the world of God's plans -- that humankind will be held accountable at the Second Coming, when Christ returns to establish his eternal kingdom.

"There is a beautiful sense of longing -- the longing for Christ to transform those who are expectantly waiting," said Sister Patricia Beirne, director of the Spirituality Center on the Doheny Campus of Mount St. Mary's College. (The center is located on the campus but not affiliated with it.)

A prerequisite for seeking a changed heart, she said, is to "quiet down." Taking time to be quiet and sit still helps one get in touch with "what the real longing is," she said.

Not everyone can run off to a monastery or retreat center, but one can carve out a sacred space at home, in the garden or even while taking walks, Beirne suggested. One could start with a few minutes a day and continue to increase the quite time, she said.

A member of Religious Sisters of Mercy for 50 years, Beirne is a veteran teacher, pastoral counselor and a spiritual director who trains spiritual directors from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths.

"In today's world, there is a lot of longing and yearning," she said. "People long for meaning, for hope, for peace, for community."

Reinforced by the culture, many people try to find meaning in material ways, she observed.

"That's not going to do it," Beirne said. "There is something deeper that all of us long for."

Tim O'Brien, a world history teacher at Schurr High School in Montebello and lifelong Roman Catholic, intentionally spends Advent as a time to try "to empty myself of my own agenda and preoccupations to prepare for the cosmic Christ who is always coming into the world if I'm aware and awake enough to see him in the world and the people around me."

One practice that has been "a boon" for the last few Advent seasons, he said, has been to reflect on the book "Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas" by Jan L. Richardson.

Another has been to listen to Richard Rohr's CD "Preparing for Christmas." A Franciscan priest, Rohr is a well-known author and spiritual director.

Rohr "urges his listeners to adopt a 'contemplative stance' toward power, prestige and possessions at this hectic and commercially driven time of the year," O'Brien said.

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