“We live in the in-between time, and that’s very hard to do,” said the Rev. Sandra Sisson, pastor of Okolona Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen.
“Advent is both somber and joyful, and that reminds us of the ranging character of human life into which Christ chose to enter.”
The annual cycle of readings in most churches traces the life of Jesus through scripture. Advent, which ends with the Nativity, marks the beginning of the liturgical year.
That might seem strange, given that the secular year ends at the same time, but for the Rev. Richard Smith, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Corinth, it also suggests a connection between life and death.
“The images I have of leaves falling, and of temperatures dropping, even of our Mississippi experience of guys sitting in deer stands, says something about reflection upon life, about dying and being reborn,” he said.
Ministers have traditionally worn purple vestments during Advent, the same color worn during the season preceding Easter, known as Lent.
“Clearly we’re meant to see Christ’s birth and death as intimately connected,” said the Rev. Rick Brooks, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Tupelo.
“Symbolically, the church is trying to ensure that we’re exposed to the whole sweep of the gospel witness.”
The color purple also harkens back to the practice of early Christians who observed Advent with penitential rites similar to those associated with Lent.
Some pastors today are wearing blue vestments during Advent, or a mixture of purple and blue. Again, the color has meaning, as blue is most often associated with feast days dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Beginning this week, liturgical churches will begin the “C” cycle of readings, which is heavily interspersed with passages from the Gospel According to Luke.
“Mary is a major character in this gospel,” said Brooks. “We start feeling that gravitational pull, getting Mary’s perspective on being God’s chosen one.”
As a symbolic way of living the season, many Christians decorate their homes with Advent wreaths.
In Saltillo, the Wilkins family will be marking the season with a wreath carved by a fellow member of St. Luke United Methodist Church.
Each night 7-year-old Kieredith will relight one of the purple candles, representing one of the four weeks of Advent. Her mom, Cindy, said it’s a great way to teach Kieredith and her little sister, Cassidy, about the season.
“The pink is for Mary,” Kieredith said, pointing to various symbols on the wreath.
Cindy explained that the evergreen represents the eternal life that comes through faith in Jesus. Inside the wreath, carved on the candle holders, were a butterfly, symbolizing hope, and a dove, representing the Holy Spirit.
“It reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas in a commercialized world,” said the girls’ father, Walt.
Already, not yet
Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago, yet each year his followers celebrate his birth as though it were happening now.
In theological terms, Jesus’ conception and birth is known as the Incarnation, from the Latin meaning “to become flesh,” and according to Smith of St. James, Christians shouldn’t see it has having happened only in the past.
“The mystery of the Incarnation is being lived out continually in the body of the church,” said Smith.
In a similar way, Jesus said both that the kingdom of God would reach its fulfillment in the future, and that it was already breaking in.
“It’s unfortunate that, so often, we take Christian doctrines in a static form,” said Smith.
Most Baptists don’t observe Advent officially, but they share that sense of anticipation as a way of making the the Incarnation a contemporary reality.
“At the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said ‘Do this in memory of me,’” said the Rev. Kevin Wood, pastor of The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo.
“The Hebrew word for ‘remember’ meant to relive, re-create, or even re-enact the event that was being remembered. ... Seasons like Christmas and Easter remind us that the story is in the process of being told, even now.”
Within that story, all believers are active characters, according to Smith.
“The first couple of weeks of Advent are so rich with images – by and large from Isaiah – which suggest that the kind of utopia Christmas represents doesn’t come without our efforts,” he said.
“This longing is supposed to move or provoke us to a response, to bring about these things that we long for in a cooperative effort.”
For Sisson of Aberdeen First Presbyterian, that tension between the “already and the “not yet” also symbolizes the pain and joy that were part of Jesus’ birth.
“He was the greatest gift humanity every received yet his mother experienced birth pangs,” said Sisson. “You have this great juxtaposition of the negative and the positive. That’s the essence of life. Jesus is born anew each day the Christian lives.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.