A few years ago we bought a preformed Advent wreath at Michael’s. I wrapped some ribbons and beads around it, stuck some plastic red berries into the greenery here and there, and deemed it ready for service. It was hardly an example of artistic brilliance, but it would serve us fine. It was festive. It would hold the candles.
We’d never celebrated Advent as a family, so this was an experiment. The church we attended at the time didn’t observe a liturgical calendar, so we didn’t even have a traditional corporate Advent experience. We were on our own to figure out the meaning of the candles and unearth some appropriate Scripture verses and devotionals.
From time to time, I dream up ideas like this as a potential family tradition, but I never know if it will “take.” You know what I mean?
Sometimes I suggest some clever outing or activity, trying to force it to happen…then it turns out not to be right for our family. Or maybe the idea was fun, but nobody asks about it again. Then it just fades away—it might serve as a pleasant memory, but not a lasting tradition.
Then there are those times when it works.
It becomes something to ask for, something to look forward to, something to count on, something that brings back memories and builds on them.
When that happens, it becomes a tradition.
The Advent Wreath Tradition
The Advent wreath turned out to be one of those things that worked. It “took,” and now it’s a tradition.
When we bring out that ribbon-adorned wreath and set it up in the center of the table, its appearance and presence for the next few weeks says, “Christmas is coming—time to reflect.”
I look forward to the hush that comes over the family when we turn off the lights and gather around the table. The kids who can read eagerly anticipate looking up verses to share. We take turns reading passages, listening for the key words. Sometimes we try some creative activity. Sometimes we try to sing a carol. Sometimes we have a good conversation about it, and sometimes we meander and get off on tangents. But three things are consistent:
- we light the candles
- try to bring it back to the Bible verses, and
- end in prayer.
Candles Create Quiet to Reflect
We light the candle and read the verses in the dim light. We all tend to speak softly because the soft candlelight encourages a quieter atmosphere. It’s a natural setting for prayer.
I love how it ushers in a quiet moment at the end of the day, so still, so reflective—a countermeasure to the hectic pace of the surrounding culture; an antidote for the poison of consumerism that dominates the Christmas season. As the years have progressed, I think it’s proven to slow us down for a few moments in order to focus on Jesus Christ and the Incarnation in particular.
The candles each represent something. I’ve seen several suggestions for what they can stand for:
- Week 1: Hope, or Prophecy/Prophets, or the Patriarchs
- Week 2: Peace, or Bethlehem, or the Prophets can be this week instead of the first, or the Holy Family
- Week 3: Joy, or Shepherds, or John the Baptist
- Week 4: Love, or Angels, or the Magi, or Mary
So …pick your favorite combination, I guess, unless your church traditions insist on a particular series.
Advent Week 1: Peace
This week’s candle could represent peace, Bethlehem, the Holy Family, or the Prophets. The Boy insisted that it was the Holy Family candle. His Sunday School teacher said so. I was hoping to focus on Bethlehem and Peace.
So I asked him, “Who is the Holy Family?”
“Joseph, Mary….and….the donkey?” he replied.
We talked it over and determined that while the donkey was very useful, he probably wasn’t considered family. We came up with a more appropriate family member to take its place.
I pointed out that Mary and Joseph were just a couple until they got to…brilliant segue here…Bethlehem.
Then that’s where Jesus was born, so that’s when they became a Holy Family.
I was hoping to talk about Bethlehem and peace. All the verses I’d looked up were about peace. And there are a lot of verses about peace. We couldn’t get to them all.
Scripture on Peace
Here are some that we read:
- Isaiah 9:6-7 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
- Micah 5:5-6 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.
- Luke 2:14 (heavenly host appearing before the Shepherds praising God) “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
- John 14:27 (Jesus speaking) “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
- Romans 5:1-2 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
- Colossians 1:19-20 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
- Colossians 3:15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
As we read them, we listened for the key word: Peace.
Every time the kids heard it, they were to hold up their pointer finger like a candle.
There are so many important verses about peace. We missed some good ones. I think we should revisit the best ones and look up the ones we missed.
Songs on Peace
We remembered that this morning at church we sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” I love that song. We tried to sing a verse or two tonight as a family, but we’re not very strong singers. It’s too bad we couldn’t enjoy the carol, because the lyrics are so great. They tie all those possible candle concepts together:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!
How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
Where children pure and happy pray to the blessèd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
You’ve got the Holy Family, peace, and Bethlehem, all wrapped up on into one carol.
I grabbed the lyrics from Cyber Hymnal in 2007, where they included a short detail about Phillips Brooks’ inspiration as he penned the lyrics:
[originally at this link: cyberhymnal.org/htm/o/l/olittle.htm accessed 2007]
Brooks wrote about his horseback journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he assisted with the midnight service on Christmas Eve, 1865:
I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.
“Again and again,” he wrote, “it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.”
Repeat the Story with Advent Traditions, Year After Year
Again and again, year after year, Advent after Advent, generation after generation, we tell the story of our dear Savior’s birth.
Each year when we light those candles, we start the story again. Whatever passages we read or songs we sing, whatever we emphasize week after week during Advent, we’re basically telling the story to each other, passing it along–the truth of Christ incarnate, fully God and fully man. We keep passing it down along the long line of believers. For now, it’s our responsibility.
This morning during the offering, a musician in our church sang with his wife a song that he wrote. The message of the song was just that–the passing along of the story down through the generations, the story of Jesus Christ, of salvation, of the virgin birth, the cross, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit. Makes me think of two other hymns. They aren’t Christmas carols, but they are a good reminder of what this whole season is about: telling the story.
I Love to Tell the Story
I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true;
It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.
I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story; more wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams.
I love to tell the story, it did so much for me;
And that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.
I love to tell the story; ’tis pleasant to repeat
What seems, each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard
The message of salvation from God’s own holy Word.
I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.
Tell Me the Old, Old Story
Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.
Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.
Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.
Tell me the same old story when you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory is costing me too dear.
Yes, and when that world’s glory is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story: “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”
This Christ Jesus, born in Bethlehem, makes us whole.
May you enjoy the story this week, the truth, the Christ.
May you experience His peace.
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We celebrate advent as well, but I imagine our gatherings are quite a bit less…orderly…than yours. LOL! We try to keep it short and sweet and yet still keep it.
I LOVE O Little Town of Bethlehem! I never knew that next-to-last verse…thank you for sharing; it made me get all teary.
I wish I knew the tunes to the other two hymns you listed. The words are amazing, and I know bits and snatches, but not the entirety. They are so beautiful and meaningful.
Hi there, Jenni!
The most effective evenings at our place are those that are kept shorter. People get fidgety if it drags out too long and if my creative idea turns out to be a dud.
I never knew the next-to-last verse, either. Thank you, Cyber-Hymnal. Speaking of which, you can click on the titles of the two “story” hymns, and it will take you to the Cyber-Hymnal site where they play midi-music-versions of the hymns. They’re annoyingly electronic, but you do get the music. The music for the song you’re reading about plays continuously when you arrive at its page.
I always get choked up when we sing “I Love to Tell the Story” at church, because it was your grandma’s Sunday School class song. Every so often, they met at our house (every month not on a Sunday they met at members’ homes). I can remember lying in bed listening to those sweet older ladies singing “I Love to Tell the Story.” I am misting up right now.