Advent, the annual run-up to Christmas, begins tomorrow. But I’m guessing that many of you already have your Christmas tree up and have Christmas music playing in your homes. Just in case you haven’t gotten too far ahead of things, consider adding Advent to your Christmas preparations. Advent is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. It also looks forward to his return in glory.

Advent season

The Advent season begins on the Sunday nearest St. Andrew’s Day. Ha. You knew that, right? St. Andrew’s Day was Nov. 30, so the First Sunday of Advent is Dec. 3. There’s always four Sundays to the Advent season, concluding with Christmas. When Dec. 24 falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, it’s still Advent. Christmas Eve doesn’t begin till evening (that’s why it’s called “eve”). The Christmas season begins then and lasts twelve days. While many people have thrown their trees in the gutter, churches that I have served were still celebrating Christmas and singing carols into early January. Greet folks with “Blessed Advent” till sundown on Dec. 24. Then wish folks “Merry Christmas” till Jan. 6. See what kind of reaction you get.

Advent reading

Many churches provide prayer and reflection resources. If you haven’t developed a regular meditation routine get started this Advent. I highly recommend Walter Brueggemann’s “Names for the Messiah.” Brueggemann is one of the world’s leading Biblical scholars. The book is built around the royal names found Isaiah 9:6: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Each week you can spend time in prayer and study with one of these four names. It also makes a great group Bible study.

Advent wreath

Many churches have an Advent wreath with four candles to mark the progression of the season. Typically the candles are blue or purple, which were royal colors. Each Sunday begins with a brief meditation and the lighting of a candle. Many people also use an Advent wreath at home, which is a great way to teach young people about the coming of Christ. Some churches still use a pink candle for the Third Sunday of Advent. That tradition dates from the time when the Pope handed out roses on that day. I am mildly amused whenever I see a pink candle in a Protestant wreath!

Advent calendar

Another great tradition is to have an Advent calendar. You can buy them, or better yet, make your own. Get your children or grandchildren together, print out a calendar from your computer, and decide what you want to put in each box. It might be a different prayer each day. Or Bible readings. I recently made an Advent calendar with a different mission for each day. Some of those include making a card for a soldier, leaving a treat for your mail carrier, and taking pet food to the animal shelter. Be creative. Don’t forget to put “go to church” in the Sunday boxes.

Jesse tree

Convert your Christmas tree to a Jesse tree during Advent. This is a great way to learn about the men and women who prepared the way for Christ. Open your Bible, collect some Old Testament names, get a short biography of them from Wikipedia if you don’t know them (Zerubbabel comes to mind), and then go to Google images and get clip art. Your children or grandchildren can color them and put them on the tree. It’s called a Jesse tree because Jesse was King David’s father. Jesus was a descendant of Israel’s great king. There’s a great Jesse tree project with decoration ideas at loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/liturgical-year/advent/the-jesse-tree.

Advent music

Go to YouTube and download some Advent music. Advent’s great hymns capture the spirit of the season. Listen to and ponder “O come, O come Emmanuel,” “Come, thou long-expected Jesus,” “Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding,” and others. Check out their histories on line. Don’t miss Handel’s “Messiah” at the Cathedral of St. Helena on Dec.11. “Messiah” covers the whole gamut of Christ and salvation. The oratorio begins with the Isaiah 40 lesson, which many of you will hear in church on Dec. 10. The tenor’s part in “Comfort ye” always gives me goose pimples. What a great way to celebrate Advent.

Advent shopping

Do some shopping this Advent, but of a different kind. Did you see the “Gifts from the Heart” section of the Helena IR on Thanksgiving? There were a number of Helena-area ways to help others this season. The Friendship Center. Toys for Tots. Food Share. Florence Crittenton Home. Placer Pantry. Plus many more. Instead of a consumer-fueled Christmas, make it a Christ-focused one by donating to a good cause in thanksgiving for a friend or family member. Many of us have more stuff than we’ll ever need. I have enough golf balls to sink a ship. Don’t forget the larger world. Donate to cost-effective charities such as Catholic Relief Service. It got an A+ rating from Charity Watch. Or Lutheran World Relief (A); United Methodist Committee on Relief (A+); or Episcopal Relief and Development (A) to name a few. Go to charitywatch.org to see how well relief and development agencies perform. Then chose one.

Advent greens

Go ahead and put up your greens, but trim them with blue or purple. Then change the decorations to red and gold before heading to church on Christmas Eve. Keep your greens up through Epiphany on Jan. 6. If you have a cut tree, be sure to recycle it. The mulch will be your Christmas present to the earth. Have a blessed Advent.

The Very Rev. Stephen Brehe is the retired dean of St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena.

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