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Advent:
Reclaiming a Birthright

by Kathy Mulhern

Thanksgiving is over, and now the race is on: malls, catalogs, commercials, coupons, advertisements. Buy more. Buy better. Buy faster. Get there. Do it. That—s what Christmas preparation is all about, isn—t it?

Christmas is parties, presents, a break from school. Christmas is a little bit of family and a whole lot of memories. It—s blockbuster movies, released just in time for the holidays. Christmas is lines, lights, ribbons, wrappings, carols, red and green.

This is just what we do in December. Nothing more. Nothing less. Same old feeding frenzies and gift-giving hysteria.

Oh, yeah. Christmas has a religious part: nativities, prophecies, angels, mother and child. The cast includes shepherds, wandering easterners, stars, Emmanuel—all is calm, all is bright stuff.

It—s hard not to feel a bit—well—packaged about the whole season, isn—t it? What else could it possibly be besides what it has always been? Isn—t that what it—s all about?

That—s up to you to decide. That—s the message of this Youth Update. Your Advent can be anything you want it to be. It—s a great big opportunity all wrapped up in a tidy four weeks. The marketplace is begging and pleading and groveling for your attention. It—s so easy to give it to them. This issue offers some alternative ways for you to think and act.

One of the wealthiest men in the world was once asked, —How much is enough?— His answer? —Just a little bit more.— This is what the world wants you to feel and think and want, especially during this season.

But there is another way.

More than any other time of year, Advent is an invitation, a quiet one compared to the others you—ll receive before Christmas, but a captivating one. Advent bids us listen to a most engaging story, better than any novel you—ve ever read. The season summons us into the collective memory of the people of God, a memory so deep and powerful and rich and sweet that it has dazzled generation after generation. As one of God—s people, it—s your memory, your story, your opportunity.

Out of Amnesia

Yes, Baby Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary, who was engaged to the carpenter Joseph, who had a dream that he should marry this girl, after she—d had a visit from an angel, who also visited Zechariah, whose wife had baby John the Baptist, who talked a lot about Jesus coming, who then did come as a baby. That baby was said to be the Son of God.

You—ve got the story down pat, right? So. We—ve told the story. Let—s get back to the parties.

Aahhh, but that isn—t the beginning. No, not the beginning at all. It starts way before that. The whole invitation of Advent is to remember, to see again the presence of God among us, here from the beginning.

The Christmas story is the climax of a tale that weaves in and out of life after life. Jesus, whose other name, Emmanuel, means God-with-us, is a single human being who puts together in one life all the sparks and glimmers of God-light scattered over thousands of years.

It—s that Spirit of God who moves among us—bringing about great things, like the rise and fall of nations, and small things, like supplying wine for a wedding party—who gives us the answers to life—s questions. These are not —old people— questions. These are questions I know you are asking. Who is God? Who am I? What am I here for? What is God like? What does God expect of me? What is life for? Where am I going?

So many of us suffer from amnesia, a deep spiritual forgetfulness. We have forgotten that Spirit. We have forgotten God—s presence. We have forgotten the countless extraordinary experiences that so many people have had—experiences that shock and amaze us, experiences that comfort and console us, experiences that challenge and shake us...experiences of God.

And God is waiting, oh so patiently, to give us those experiences again in the storytelling, in the sharing of memory, and most particularly in our own experience.

History or Experience?

So, then, why don—t we have those kinds of eye-openers like the people in the Bible had? I mean, it would be a lot more interesting to listen to their stories if we had things like that happening to us.

That—s Part Two of the Advent invitation. You can read the stories till you know them by heart, but that isn—t the same as remembering them. Reading about them is merely keeping them out there, in the realm of history or fantasy. To remember the old stories is to claim them as your own, the gifts of God for the people of God.

Let me give you some examples. I—m going to tell you a few stories from Scripture. Pretend they—re Christmas gifts. You can accept these gifts as interesting but ancient legends or as a quaint record of the past. Or you can open them up to see how they are your story, too.

— Take the story of Abraham and Sarah, a pagan couple in a city somewhere near the Persian Gulf. They had family; they had gods; they had careers; they had plans. And then God chose Abraham to be his friend, his confidante even. The couple took God up on the offer and left everything behind.

God promised old man Abraham and withered woman Sarah the impossible—that they would have as many children as there are stars in the sky. And they believed him. Now, what happened to these two can be just a story about a couple of wanderers who had pie-in-the-sky aspirations. Or what happened to Abraham and Sarah can be a recollection of God—s voice deep within your soul, a summons to look at the stars and believe God no matter how impossible things seem.

— Take the story of Hannah, a Jewish woman who was considered a total failure because she couldn—t have children. Her husband—s other wife had sons and daughters, along with a high-and-mighty attitude that made Hannah—s life miserable. And then God listened to her heartbroken prayer and gave her a most extraordinary little boy.

What happened to Hannah can be just a story about what happened to one woman way back when men had more than one wife and women were nothing without children. Or what happened to Hannah can be a recollection of God—s voice deep within your soul, an encouragement to pray and a whisper of hope when your heart is broken.

— Take the story of David, the youngest child of a large family. His big brothers were warriors in the king—s army and were in a serious battle with the enemy. Cute little David, known primarily as a shepherd and harpist, decided to take on the enemy—s Number One hit man, Goliath. Snort, said his brothers. But David put his confidence in the Lord, heaved a stone skyward and took down the giant.

What happened to David can be just a nice kid—s story about the boy and the giant, a bit like Jack and the Beanstalk. Or what happened to David can be a recollection of God—s voice deep within your soul, a stirring of courage when you face your own giants and a promise of strength when others make you feel small.

— Take the story of Jonah, a Jewish man who heard God tell him to go one way but who went the opposite direction. No way was he going to preach to those pagans about God. Sorry, he had other plans, a cruise perhaps. Then God moved the sailors to dump Jonah overboard and directed a fish to swallow him. And there in the solitude of that belly, Jonah had plenty of time to think more clearly about God and about himself and about right and wrong.

What happened to Jonah can be just a story about a stubborn old man and an ocean tempest and some evil sailors and a killer whale. Or what happened to Jonah can be a recollection of God—s voice deep within your soul, a cool, moist breeze blowing away your dark moments of rebellion and fear.

Each story presents the same opportunity, the same invitation. They are memories, not history lessons.

Anticipate

God did not just decide out of the blue to come and be with us. No, God has been with us, talking to this prophet, making friends with that couple, giving special help to this mother, teaching that teenager how to fight giants. Here and there. But now, in Jesus, God is always here. Not just for the prophet. Not just for the king or the queen. Not just for the strongest or the holiest or the bravest, but for you and me as well.

When we enter Advent and accept its invitation, we receive the clues that tell us about God and where to look for God in our own lives. As we indulge in some old-fashioned storytelling and work through the chapters until we reach that chilly night in Bethlehem, we may discover that our expectations for the season have been rather puny.

Overeating, staying out late, sleeping in, getting stuff—that—s a pretty stunted expectation. Even the finer parts of the season—family time, shopping for your little brother—s stocking, attending the church Christmas play—can be a shortsighted focus for this time of year.

When we plug ourselves into the big picture we find that Jesus is not just a special baby, but the One who brings together all the promises, all the hopes, all the visions, all the risks, all the miracles, all the dreams of all the people of God. He is your promise, your hope, your vision, your risk, your miracle, your dream. This is your story.

So, if you—re interested in something else, something much bigger than anything you—ll find in a mall, stop, look, listen. This year, let go of prepackaged expectations and open yourself up to anticipation. If you—re really ready to look for God, believe me, God is ready for you. Anticipate God—s presence, and you will discover it. Take 10 minutes each morning to see how one of God—s people discovered God—s presence.

Check out the box on the last page, where I—ve listed one person (or one couple) for each day of Advent. Read a bit of their stories. Ask yourself: What challenges did they face? What risks did they encounter? What dreams did they have? Why are their stories my stories? Or, choose one character that you find most engaging. Read that character—s whole story, a bit each day.

Listed next to each character you will find a visual aid, some tangible part of the story that can help you take their stories deep inside. For instance, in the story about Isaac, a ram becomes the last-second substitute for his sacrifice. On the day you read that story, think ram. Not Random Access Memory, but a wooly ram to symbolize the very special memory of a boy whose father loves God immeasurably and whose God loves the boy immeasurably.

See a ram in your mind and let that image trigger the memory of the story. Doodle rams on your notebooks. See rams in the clouds. Tell the story of the ram to one other person. Make the last thing on your mind before you go to sleep be the image of that ram, that gift of God that saved Isaac—s life.

You can keep track of the Story behind the stories by making a Jesse Tree. This is an ancient tradition that has helped generations of people prepare for Christmas. Jesse was King David—s father and King David has always been the symbol of Israel—s hopes for a messiah, a king above every king. The prophet Isaiah talked about the —root— and —branch— of Jesse when he prophesied about the hope of the Messiah. So we make a Jesse Tree to remind ourselves that God—s plan has been forever and that we—re part of it.

There are as many ways to make a Jesse Tree as there are people. Do it your own way. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

— For each image—apple, rainbow, ladder, whale—draw a simple picture or write a simple poem.

— Use construction paper or posterboard and make tree ornaments of your images.

— Tape a sheet of newsprint to your bedroom door or refrigerator and record your drawings or poems graffiti-style. Put a heading on it: My Family Tree.

— Keep your Jesse Tree in your diary.

— Record each drawing or writing on an index card; punch a hole in each corner and keep them on a Jesse Ring. Or collect them and mail them each week to a friend or relative.

The important thing is to find a way to track the presence of God, day after day, until you find God—s presence fully in the Baby born on Christmas morning.

In Mary—s song, the Magnificat, she sings, —God—s mercy is from age to age.— Jesus is the proof of God—s ageless mercy, the love and tenderness that go on and on and on...all the way to you and me. It—s a gift you can—t afford to overlook.

Kathy Mulhern is a wife, mother, reader, writer and editor. She writes the Leader—s Guides which accompany each issue of a Youth Updatesubscription. She is also the author of five books of meditations for teens.

Stories of the Season

November 30
Adam & Eve
Genesis 1:26-28; 3:1-24
apple

DECEMBER 1
Noah
Genesis 6:5-9; 7:7-16; 8:13-17; 9:12-16
boat or rainbow

DECEMBER 2
Abraham & Sarah
Genesis 12:1-7; 15:1-6
star

DECEMBER 3
Isaac
Genesis 22:1-19
ram

DECEMBER 4
Jacob
Genesis 28:10-16
ladder

DECEMBER 5
Joseph
Genesis 37:3-4, 17-36; 50:15-21
coat

DECEMBER 6
Moses
Exodus 3:1-15
bush

DECEMBER 7 — SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Rahab
Joshua 2:1-21
rope

DECEMBER 8
Joshua
Joshua 6:1-20
trumpet

DECEMBER 9
Deborah
Judges 4:1-16
palm tree

DECEMBER 10
Gideon
Judges 7:1-8, 15-20
torch

DECEMBER 11
Samson
Judges 13:1-5;
15:14-17
jawbone

DECEMBER 12
Ruth
Ruth 1:1-17; 2:2-3; 4:13-22
grains of wheat

DECEMBER 13
Hannah
1 Samuel 1:1-20, 24-28; 2:18-20
small robe

DECEMBER 14 — THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Samuel
1 Samuel 3:1-10; 16:1-13
oil

DECEMBER 15
David
1 Samuel 17:1-51
slingshot

DECEMBER 16
Solomon
1 Kings 3:4-15
scepter

DECEMBER 17
Elijah
2 Kings 2:1-5, 9-13
chariot

DECEMBER 18
Jonah
Jonah 1:1-17; 2:10; 3:1-3
whale

DECEMBER 19
Isaiah
Isaiah 11:1-9
branch

DECEMBER 20
Ezekiel
Ezekiel 37:1-14
bones


DECEMBER 21 — FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Esther
Esther 2:17-18; 3:8-15; 4:7-16; 7:10
crown

DECEMBER 22
Daniel
Daniel 1:1-4; 6:1-28
lion

DECEMBER 23
Malachi
Malachi 4:1-6
sun

DECEMBER 24 — CHRISTMAS EVE
Elizabeth & Zechariah
Luke 1:5-25
angel

DECEMBER 25 — CHRISTMAS DAY
Mary
Luke 2:1-14
manger

 

Lauren Culley (14), Jessica Deere (15), Ryan Kerns (15) and Tony Smith (17), all of St. Mary Parish in Urbana, Ohio, met at the Kerns house to think about the Advent season and this Youth Update. Sara Kerns and Peggy Hanna are adult co-leaders of St. Mary's youth group.

Q.

Aren't we supposed to celebrate Christmas until January 6? You stopped with Christmas Day.

A.

Your question makes me think that maybe we should celebrate Christmas year-round. After all, the incarnation of God in the baby Jesus is a fabulous, outrageous, life-changing, creation-shaking event. My suggestions are only given to help us celebrate Advent, a few special weeks to prepare our spirits to receive the awesome news. When we really focus on what happened in Bethlehem, the weeks after Christmas can be a great unfolding of grace and joy.

Q.

You can't stop the parties. Isn't there a way to use the parties as part of getting ready for the birth of Jesus, too?

A.

Certainly, parties can be part of the celebration. They're a great way to build on friendships and celebrate good times. Jesus loved a good party. But a party is neither more nor less than what you make it to be. Jesus loved parties because he loved joy, he loved friends, he loved meeting new people and he loved conversation with them. Any party (any time) that distracts you from what you know to be true and right and beautiful and godly is a waste of your time. Insofar as a party is one that Jesus would enjoy, party on!

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