In a world filled with division and darkness, Advent and Christmas is a time for Christian faiths to reflect on the blessing of Christ’s birth and hopeful preparation for his second coming.
It’s a belief that binds Christians, even though not every denomination worships in the same way. The Advent season began this year on Dec. 3 and ends on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24. The tone of Advent is anticipating the second coming of Jesus until Dec. 17, when Catholics then begin to focus on the birth of Jesus. Each week, parishes light a candle on the four-candle Advent wreath signifying “prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and good works,” according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
It can also be a time for understanding, and learning how different mainline Christian denominations celebrate this faith-filled season can be a gift.
“It is preparation for the coming of Christ, contemplativeness in our lives,” said Rev. C.B. Baker, pastor at St. Luke Episcopal Church in Hot Springs. “Make it a holy season in the midst of a very busy society and culture.”
While Christmas concerts are common, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, spearheaded by First United Methodist Church in Rogers, brings several churches together to retell the story of God’s gift of his son, all the way back to the beginning.
“There are nine lessons, Scripture readings that take you from Genesis to John,” said Brian Breeding, director of music for the church. “After each Scripture reading, the choir is singing or the audience is singing a carol in response.”
The second annual concert was hosted at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers Dec. 6, with six choirs, including the Catholic choir, First United Methodist Church choir, First Presbyterian Church choir and three other Methodist choirs. The choirs sang two songs together, each choir sang one and the rest were congregational singing.
The program has Anglican roots and was formalized in 1880, but the first official performance was held in 1918 at King’s College in Cambridge on Christmas Eve.
Breeding said the program always begins with the carol “Once in Royal David’s City,” followed by a bidding prayer, encouraging the audience to pray for “the needy or homeless,” or other causes.
“For me it’s the idea of people with different views of Christianity coming together and for the most part setting aside our theological differences and bringing something that’s meaningful that we can all agree on. We don’t have enough of that today.”
First United Methodist Church in Rogers has about 260 members and in addition to the choral program, they celebrate the Advent and Christmas season with a hanging of the greens service.
“It’s a way of just re-emphasizing the different elements and symbols,” explaining to church members the meanings behind the various decorations in the church, Breeding said.
Rev. Baker of St. Luke Episcopal Church, with a Sunday attendance around 200, said the Advent and Christmas season is celebrated similar to the Catholic faith following the three-year cycle of Sunday Mass readings.
“We use the Revised Common Lectionary. We feel we are part of the larger, catholic with a small ‘c’, universal church,” he said.
Since he has been pastor for the past 11 years, the church has provided adult education during Advent. This year’s theme will be focused on the “Messiah,” an oratorio composed by George Handel, led by the music director of the church.
“I like to talk to them about quietness, stillness in the midst of shopping and parties, I know how the world works,” adding that he’s not immune to the fast-paced Christmas season, but Advent is “intended to be time of prayer, preparation for the coming of Christ.”
At St. Mark Episcopal Church in Little Rock, members will host a Christingle service, which means “Christ light.” Though it is a British tradition, Christingle was born out of the Moravian Church. In 1747, Bishop Johannes de Watteville introduced it in Germany as a way to visually explain to children that Jesus is the light of the world, according to childrenssociety.org.uk. Thousands of churches and schools across Britain use the Christingle service to raise money to fight child poverty and neglect.
Tim Allen, a British organist and composer, led the first Christingle service last year at the Little Rock church for about 120 people. He is the organist/choirmaster at St. Mark and his wife, internationally known singer Christine Westhoff, attends Christ the King Church in Little Rock.
Children meet before the service to build a Christingle, which includes an orange representing the world; a red ribbon around it, the blood of Christ; four toothpicks, the four corners of the world; dried fruits or candy on the toothpicks, God’s creations or fruits of the Holy Spirit; and a lit candle on the orange to represent Jesus bringing hope during Advent.
“It’s a very pictorial thing and one that’s full of symbolism and imagery,” Allen said.
During the service, the children “of all ages,” Allen said, process around the church holding the Christingles, singing carols.
“We use a lot of light and dark imagery during Advent. It’s a very powerful way to think of Advent, coming out of darkness into light,” Allen said.
This year’s Christingle is Sunday, Dec. 17.
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, has had a variety of unique celebrations so far, including a party led by the Brewtherans, a group of Lutherans who brew their own beer, where they presented an Advent calendar with a different beer and devotional each day, said Rev. Clint Schnekloth.
“We do things that are probably familiar to Roman Catholics. We have a four-week calendar with Advent candles … with devotions around that,” he said. Church vestments are blue for the Advent season, “because blue is the color of hope and anticipation,” he said.
“During the season we do weekly vespers on Wednesday night,” which includes a soup supper and evening prayer, Schnekloth said. The last Wednesday of the month before Christmas, Good Shepherd will host a Longest Night Service, also called a Blue Christmas Service, for those who are grieving during the holidays.
As a way to give back, money raised from the children’s Christmas pageant will be donated to ongoing disaster relief in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in September.
As Christians reflect on Jesus’ birth, it is important to understand the theme of welcome in the nativity story, Schnekloth said, who works with Frank Head, director of Catholic Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement in Springdale, along with others for the nonprofit Canopy NWA which works to create a safe place for refugees.
“Jesus couldn’t find a place; he was away from his home when he was born. I think it’s worth remembering that story … as a welcome to strangers and refugees in our midst,” he said.
Pastor Ruskin Falls, who has been minister at Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church since 2008, said it’s important to emphasize to his congregation of about 70 that Advent is not lost in Christmas.
“We’ve kind of turned Advent into just an extended Christmas,” he said.
The church has an Advent wreath that will be lit each Sunday of Advent, but all the candles are purple and there’s no significance assigned to each one other than the concept of penance. “Basically we look at it as the increase of light each Sunday as we grow closer to the birth of Jesus … it is a season of penance, we’ve gotten so far away from that. Penance is not the mindset of our culture and not even of our churches these days.”
They have also done a “reverse Advent calendar,” a basket where each day food or socks, gloves or other needed items are placed to be donated to the church food pantry or Stewpot, a ministry to feed the homeless by First Presbyterian Church in downtown Little Rock.
Each Sunday, he has focused on time, including messianic time preaching on Isaiah, and imperial time, with the story of the Three Wise Men.
“When we’re remembering God coming among us with the birth of Jesus we’re actually preparing for the one coming at the end of time,” he said.
Christmas decorations were put up on the first Sunday of Advent and include a Chrismon tree, a combination of the words “Christ” and “monogram,” filled with white and gold ornaments that signify Christianity.
The tree was initially created by Lutherans in Virginia in the late 1950s.
Pulaski Heights’ Chrismon tree ornaments date back at least 25 years, handmade by a sewing group at the church, said secretary Jane Anne Spikes, a member for 62 years.
“I love the tradition; it is just so symbolic,” she said.
There are several Christian symbols displayed on the tree, including a manger, the angel as a messenger of God, a butterfly to symbolize resurrection, doves face up and down signifying the Holy Spirit, the Chi Rho symbol and several crosses, including the Latin and Celtic crosses.
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