Before you celebrate, contemplate. This would be a good Advent maxim for those who desire a quieter, simpler holiday season, one with less pressure and more inner peace.
What would it mean to have a contemplative Advent?
In the Christian tradition, contemplation means more than merely thinking. It means seeking serenity through prayer, study, meditation — whatever practices quiet our restless minds and help us to be still and know the presence of God.
Even beyond that, contemplation means being attentive to “seeing a spiritual reality everywhere,” as Lynda Hollinger-Janzen observes in the traditional worldview of the people of Benin (Nov. 26 issue, link to come).
Advent is the perfect time to develop our ability to perceive hidden realities. It is a time of openness to spiritual renewal. The rituals of the season — hanging colorful lights, singing joyful songs, telling miraculous stories (sacred and secular) — heighten our spiritual awareness.
Perhaps it is this sense of divine immanence — of holiness drawing close — that ratchets up the tension between the sacred and the secular at this time of year.
Tension is the enemy of contemplation. Observing a contemplative Advent may help to resolve the tension.
In secular terms, for about five weeks at the end of the year we get one big holiday season, stretching from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day (Epiphany goes unnoticed). This is not wrong; there are, indeed, multiple holidays close enough to form a set.
But, for Christians, there are two distinct seasons between now and early January — and contemplative Advent comes before celebrative Christmas.
The season of Advent is a landmark of its own, a passage through a time of waiting and preparing.
Without this spiritual prelude, it is not possible to embrace the full meaning of the Savior’s birth.
But how does one prepare for an event that has already happened? Jesus’ life on Earth is ancient history. The Messiah came long ago.
What purpose, then, does our season of preparation serve? What is it that needs to be made ready?
Actually, not “what” but “who.” Who needs to prepare for Jesus’ arrival?
You and I do. We need to hear the prophet Isaiah’s visions and the forerunner John’s warnings just as urgently as those who heard them the first time.
The history books are closed on Isaiah and John, but the story of our lives is still being written.
The same Jesus for whom Isaiah and John paved the way is now the living Christ who stands at my door and knocks. Am I ready to receive him?
This is the question we contemplate during Advent.
Hans Denck, a 16th-century contemplative or “spiritualist” Anabaptist, believed every follower of Jesus should listen for the “inner Word” that speaks from within the soul.
“The Word of God is already with you before you seek it,” Denck wrote. His idea of a divine spark within us relates to Advent as it echoes the prologue of the Gospel of John. Here the evangelist proclaims that the Word, who was in the beginning with God, became flesh and lived among us.
For Denck, contemplation of this spiritual mystery was not merely an intellectual exercise. “The light which is the invisible Word of God . . . is in our very hearts not idle but [active] to do the will of the Father,” he wrote.
Mennonite Bible professor David Rensberger affirms this connection: “Contemplation and action are not adversaries in the Christian life. Both are integral to complete discipleship, to following Jesus as people who have been made new in him.”
Advent is a time to ignite the divine spark in our souls. It is the season to prepare a place in our lives for the presence of Jesus.