12/20/2013 10:01 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Concluding the Observance of Advent With Christmas As an Ongoing Practice of Love

During the last week of the four-week devotional season of Advent that concludes with Christmas Eve or the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, Christians traditionally light three candles, one representing each week of Advent: Prophetic hope and preparation in Bethlehem (both purple) and joy (pink, often connected with the shepherds to whom the birth was first announced by angels). This last week, we add a third purple candle as we meditate on God's love. This last candle is sometimes called the angel candle or candle of love. The biblical Hebrew and Greek words for "angel" can also be translated "messenger," so this last week of meditations reminds us that we be "messengers" of God's love for all people, as Christians understand God's love to embodied as incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ (John 3:16-17) -- God present with us in the form of a human infant who grew an adult vulnerable to torture and even capital punishment, though not ultimately conquered by it.

The following daily meditations for the last week of Advent can guide a personal or communal practice of quiet devotion and reflection that counters the hectic and even frenzied pace that can consume the last week leading to commercialized celebrations of Christmas day.

Sunday Meditation for December 22: The first angel mentioned in the longest biblical narrative of Jesus' birth is Gabriel, who appears in Nazareth to the young, betrothed but not yet married Mary with the message that she is pregnant with the messiah ("anointed one," or "Christ" in Greek) expected by the Jewish people (Luke 1:26-35). Naturally, she is frightened by the appearance of the angel and also overwhelmed by the message itself, but somehow God gives her grace not only to accept this turn of events but even to praise God for it in a song known as the Magnificat ("My soul magnifies the Lord!"). Just as the shepherds we considered last week, Mary's natural human response of terror at the unexpected visitation by a supernatural being turns by God's gift (the content of the message, the faith of the hearers) into rejoicing. These examples remind us to be gentle with ourselves and others this week, since responding in surrender to God's love may not be our immediate first impulse no matter how clear that love is made to us.

Monday Meditation for December 23: Christians celebrate the embodiment of God's love in human form during this Advent and Christmas season. In the presence of Jesus with us as a fellow human being, even those who are not prophets like Moses or Isaiah can now see and understand God's love in a way we can better experience through our God-created human senses: "With my own eyes, I have seen the King, the Lord Almighty" (Isaiah 6:5). This season -- from our first week meditating on hope in the promises to the prophets to the love of God announced by angels -- reminds us that to know God's love as real and present is not an experience reserved uniquely for prophets and angels but can be shared with and through us> God's love is lived here and now in our own presence, words, and actions together today.

Alternate or Additional Meditation 1: As we meditate on God's love this week, we may wonder: What is God's love? How do we express it today? The gospel of Luke describes Mary singing after the angel Gabriel announces Jesus' impending birth through her: "God has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things" (Luke 1:52-53). Her song reminds us that God's love is neither merely emotional nor in any way abstract. God love always comes to human beings in the form of the care, tangible help and comfort we give to one another - not just our immediate families but those who are in greatest need anywhere.

Alternate or Additional Meditation 2: One of the oldest of the gospels recounts that after the birth of Jesus, God used a dream to instruct his mother's husband Joseph to rescue the young Jesus from the slaughter of Jewish boys under Roman rule, taking him and Mary to Egypt. Later, at a safer time, an angel appeared to Joseph instructing him to take the child Jesus back to Nazareth along with Mary (Matthew 2:13-23). Mary and Joseph demonstrated love for Jesus and each other by keeping each other safe, by protecting and nurturing each other and the child Jesus. Meditating on their example this week reminds us that we demonstrate God's love today not so much by giving material gifts but by really taking care of each other, keeping each other safe, nurturing and caring for one another.

Tuesday Meditation for December 24: On Christmas Eve itself, Christians who have been celebrating four weeks of Advent usually light a white candle as well, sometimes called the Christ candle (John 1:29). "Christ" in Greek simply means "the anointed one" and expresses Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the one whom God has anointed in the particular way described in Jewish messianic prophecies - our Immanuel (God with us), the light to the nations (God's gracious covenant with Israel now inclusive of all people). By lighting this candle, we are reminded that the purpose of this celebration of Christian faith is neither to acquire more material things nor to focus only on our immediate families but to give and be light in the world as a whole by demonstrating God's love to all through hope, rejoicing, tangible care, nurturing, and protection.