Advent is a four-week season leading into the Christian celebration of the nativity of Jesus Christ, in whom Christians believe God to have taken human form in a human lifetime -- living as vulnerably with humans as a fellow human being, even suffering and dying a real human death in order, ultimately, to demonstrate God's promise that death is not the end of human existence through His resurrection.
The first week of Advent begins as a week of hope, when Christians meditate specifically on hope in God's promises, through the prophets of ancient Israel. Christians often light a purple candle, sometimes called the candle of prophecy or hope in their devotions during this week. In specific, Christians celebrate God's promises to Isaiah about dwelling with us as Immanuel (the One God with us), son born of a young woman or virgin (Isaiah 7:14), a prophecy quoted in the earliest Christian gospel, as fulfilled in the birth of Jesus to Mary (Matthew 1:22-23). During the first week of Advent, we also meditate on our hope in God's promise through the prophets to liberate those who are captive (Isaiah 61:1), which Jesus quoted directly as His mission as He began His ministry after baptism (Luke 4:18). We pray with the apostle Paul for all who share these prophetic hopes: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:12-13). In so doing, we recognize that hope is a gift of God, not always something that comes naturally to us.
For those who are easily overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety, loss, deprivation and stress during this holiday season for whatever reasons, renewing the Christian practice of Advent meditations and devotions can help us to slow us down, redirect our focus from tasks and goods back to our spiritual center (hope, joy, love) and thus restore our spiritual well-being. To that end, for those who would like to join my family, friends and I in the practice of Advent meditation, I offer the following short daily devotions on prophetic hope for the beginning of this season.
Meditation 1: In the Hebrew book of prayers, the psalmist sings honestly about losing hope: "Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck" (Psalm 69:1). On this first day of the week of prophetic Advent hope, we recognize that hope doesn't come easily. With the Hebrew psalmist, we trust that when we despair, we can cry out to God about how we feel, rather than hiding it. By acknowledging the reality of our common experience of doubt, we open our hearts today to God's gift of hope here and now.
Meditation 2: What do we hope for in the season of Advent? Advent means "coming," and God promised the prophets of ancient Israel a coming messenger who will bring Gods' companionship, presence and joy to us (Malachi 3:1). Christians remember God's promises to the Hebrew prophets this week, and celebrate God's presence with all of us who share these scriptures, hopes and prayers from ancient times through today.
Meditation 3: The stories of Jesus' birth and infancy demonstrate to us today that no matter how long they have been delayed, our hopes may yet be fulfilled: After decades of childlessness, the angel Gabriel tells Mary's elderly cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah that they will finally have a child -- who later becomes known as John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25). The elderly prophets Simeon and Anna are present at the Temple when the infant Jesus is presented for consecration and purification, and both burst into praise for God, recognizing that they have finally seen the long-promised messiah (Luke 2:22-38). This is a season of waiting, and many of us have spent years of barrenness of one sort of another, approaching the end of life without yet seeing the fulfillment of God's promises as we may have expected. An entire chapter in the Christian biblical Letter to the Hebrews recounts many leaders of the Jews, including Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, and even "the prostitute Rahab," who lived faithfully out of hope and trust in God's promises and were "commended for their faith," yet died before receiving what God had promised Israel or humanity as a whole (11:39). For this reason, Christians define faith (in light of the great Hebrew "cloud of witnesses") as "confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see" (Hebrews 12:1, 11:1). It is this kind of faith we celebrate and hope for in the season of Advent.
Meditation 4: Right about the same time as the infant Jesus was conceived and born, his slightly older cousin John came into the world, announced as a prophet by angel Gabriel to John's father Zechariah. Zechariah shared this promise with the infant John: "You, my child, will be called a prophet of the most high God. You will tell his people that they will be saved by having their sins forgiven" (Luke :67-77). Just as John became a prophet, so his father too prophesied, speaking hope not only in and through the life of his child, but also hope in God's mercy for all people. This prophetic expression of trust in God's forgiveness of all we have done and all we are is a message of hope we all can share with each other: Thus, today, we can embrace this prophetic hope in God's universal mercy by praying with the apostle Paul: "Be kind and tenderhearted to one another, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ" (Ephesians 4:32).
Meditation 5: When Mary's elderly cousin Elizabeth greets her, pregnant with John the Baptist, she proclaims to Mary, "The Lord has blessed you because you believe that God will keep his promise" (Luke 1:45). Mary hoped and believed what the prophets foretold, and God's response -- recognized and praised by Elizabeth -- was blessing, a word that is rooted in the Hebrew word for "kneel," a sign of both humility and empowering service to one beloved and respected. Today we meditate with Elizabeth and Mary on how hope in the promises of God is itself a blessing of God for which we thank God and through which God works in us.
Meditation 6: Today as in ancient times, a tangible way to experience hope in God's promises is to pray, even though at times we feel unworthy of coming into God's presence: "The Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant," proclaims Mary after the angel Gabriel announces that she is now an unwed mother-to-be, carrying the long-awaited messiah (Luke 1:48). Today we remember that whatever our condition in life, just as Mary did we can in spontaneous prayer listen, give thanks, ask for help and honestly share our grief, fear and worry with God.
Meditation 7: After Jesus' birth, Mary prayed silently in gratitude and wonder after many visitors recognized the significance of the birth of Jesus with gifts and prophetic praise: "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). Today we can trust that even when we are too overwhelmed with awe and emotion to find words for prayer, merely embracing God's presence in the experiences of our lives is itself a form of prayer and hope.