Despite our insistence on barreling toward Christmas, Advent unfolds in increments.

Look at the crown of green glory adorning your kitchen table or sanctuary. Candles in the Advent wreath are lit in one-week increments leading up to Christmas.

Or consider the Advent calendar, with secret doors hiding chocolates that little hands open one by one over 25 days. An eager child might jump ahead to consume multiple chocolates, but those who know delayed gratification is always sweeter take their time.

Advent: it’s a no-rush job.

This is a helpful reminder for me, especially in 2021 as we experience year two of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are managing this pandemic, but we are not yet free of it. We are living into the “now-and-not-yet” of it. My heart sings, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” Yet my mind hits the pause button on the impulse to jump back into the rituals of holidays pre-pandemic.

I need to pause, take stock of my environment and ask, “How, then, shall I observe Advent and Christmas?” Your answer to that question likely depends on your health circumstances and home base, comfort with risk and cherished traditions.

As for me and my family, this Advent and Christmas we’ll employ a hybrid approach. We’ll re-create a little of our 2019 observance mixed with some 2020, all mashed into the most hybridized of years that is 2021. It’s poetically appropriate though not ideal.

The home traditions near and dear to our hearts continue as before. Our Advent wreath brightens the shadows leading up to Christmas Eve. Our Advent calendars number our days, as the special treat of a little chocolate before breakfast is tolerated by parents who know better but also know a bit of joy on cold mornings does well to mark waiting for the Christ child.

Advent and Christmastide, like so much of life, are a mix of holidays and holy days, all running together into a beautiful stream of traditions and memory-making moments that tell a cosmic story of hope and great love.

There are some new traditions we started as a family in 2020 that we’ll continue in 2021:

Last Advent we baked numerous batches of cookies as a family, plated them up and went around our cul-de-sac delivering to our neighbors sugar-powdered joy and some ill-rehearsed Christmas carols with our two young sons singing loudest. Tears, smiles and socially distanced Christmas greetings were so needed last year, and we need them again this year.

On Christmas Eve my son, a bit of a Christmas idealist, asked that we all join hands around the Christmas tree to sing carols. Everyone in our COVID-19 bubble, including my parents, joined hands, and we ended the evening singing “Silent Night” with tears in our eyes. We weren’t in a candlelit sanctuary, undergirded by a professional choir, but surely the angels carried our tune that night.

The question of our church sanctuary rises to mind. Within a fully vaccinated family, carefully curated Christmas Eve worship might be quite desirable (needed, even!), but we’re just not ready to take that step. Our young children are still vulnerable to the virus and attend school with children who are more vulnerable than they. This Christmas we’ll spend another year watching Christmas Eve worship from our home. One of us might sneak out for a socially distanced midnight mass, but we’re not yet ready to take that on as a whole unit. The situation isn’t ideal, but it’s what we need right now.

Though we’ll miss the fun dress-up Christmas pageants that are sanctuary (and social media) mainstays, we’ll re-create a home-grown work-around we tried last year: Christmas charades, complete with all the nativity characters in pantomime. My parents were good sports, and our children really got into it.

Seeing Advent as a season of increments might be the lens we need to thoughtfully honor the incarnation this year. Advent and Christmastide, like so much of life, are a mix of holidays and holy days, all running together into a beautiful stream of traditions and memory-making moments that tell a cosmic story of hope and great love.

However you mark time in Advent, remember that Christmas will come again, even amid uncertainty.

Because, well, if ambitious emperors, a confusing census, an unconventional family and a lack of adequate housing couldn’t stop God from showing up on the scene two thousand years ago, nothing will. And we’ll celebrate the Christ child again this year, as always.

Tim Brown
Tim Brown is a pastor, writer, and ELCA director for congregational stewardship.

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