Tuesday, December 04, 2012

How to Celebrate Advent and Lower Anxiety

Some things just work in the doing of them. For example: take a really deep and full breath right now. Now take another one. Can you feel your body melt slightly, your heart slow, your head ooze out tensions into your neck? There is a reason practitioners of meditation, prayer, and exercise focus on breathing--it matters.

Keeping Time matters: This week is the beginning of the year, according to Christian tradition. We keep time according to a slightly different pattern from the lunar calendar. The year begins with anticipation of Christ's coming, and Christ's birth. We begin a new year recognizing God is the Lord of our years, and our weeks, and our days, and our hours. We begin the year relaxing into a sense of God's watchful care over all of our moments, keeping time with us.

Living life on God's clock brings real peace. It is relaxing to melt into the solidity of the Christian calendar, the life of weekly worship, the offices of daily prayer.

Prayer is healthy for those who practice it.

Ritual matters: In church last Sunday we had distributed a simple Advent calendar, and our goal as a family is to do the activity for each day. So last night our family blessed each room in our house, per calendar instructions.

We tried to invent a ritual that would make sense to the kids. So we lit a candle and carried it around to each room in the house (having dimmed the house lights in advance). One person said a prayer over each room, prayers to bless sleep, help stay clean, lots of thanksgiving for food and toys. By the third room, even our 22 month old had the liturgy figured out, and so whispered quietly, "God---thank you."

By the end, there was this sense of unity in our family, prayer calling us together in a common purpose. In each room, we made the sign of the cross. We did the cross together. And our oldest had invented a portion of the ritual I will never forget. In an operatic manner, he sang "Aaaaaaaaameeeeeeeen" the way families sing the Amen at the conclusion of the Doxology.

It was somber and hilarious in equal measure.

Keeping time as keeping calm: In a sense, keeping time and keeping rituals are keeping calm and lowering anxiety. The benefit is in the doing of them. Often when we are sad, anxious, depressed, we tend to avoid these habits. We stop exercising. We fail to call friends to talk on the phone. The way out of the hole, the healing that is available, is to step into the routines, and let the givenness of the ritual and prayers lead us to a new place.

This week we are mindful of Zechariah. In fact our mid-week worship will include meditation on his story at the beginning of Luke.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside (Luke 1:8-10).

With Zechariah, or at least with the whole assembly of the people praying outside, we give ourselves over to these practices, entrusted to us by God and the communities out of which we are risen, and we trust that in them, God will give us rest.

Do not be anxious. Light some candles. Do not fear. Breath. Find some others to breathe with. Celebrate Advent.


  1. I so appreciate your ability to help me bring the spiritual into my daily life in a meaningful way; including my family into that journey. I really needed this message today. Thank you!

  2. Thanks Clint -- I needed this today too. It's too easy to get caught up in anxiety and forget the things that bring us out of it. Blessings!

  3. Anonymous11:30 AM

    Pastor Clint,

    I'm a bit confused by this post. Reducing anxiety is a good thing to do, but I'm not quite sure that that's what Advent is for. I'm certainly not saying that it is a time to create anxiety, but...

    My understanding of the traditions of the Church is that Advent is a time in which we concentrate on the last four things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. I'm not sure that we need to "invent" new rituals. There are plenty of ancient and modern rituals out there for us to exploit in Advent. I particularly like the liturgies of Morning and Evening Prayer in the LCMS Treasury of Daily Prayer. (I do hate that title though.) I also like the LBW setting for Vespers. (Unfortunately I cannot figure out the rubrics in the new Scarlet book. Everything appears to be optional.)

    There's something wonderful during Advent as it gets colder, more dangerous, and darker; and we read in the lectionary about the coming of a judging King who brings death with him, but when that King arrives it is a poor Baby, and the death he brings is His own.

    A newer tradition of the Advent wreath also focuses us on the last four things.

    Even in this penitential season there are moments of feasting. For example, today is Saint Nicholas Day. Last night, in my home, we said first Vespers of Nicholas before we set out our shoes, and this morning they were filled with chocolate new calendars and I got a copy of Law and Gospel by C. F. W. Walther. That'll be a fun read!

    I guess what I'm trying to communicate is that there are plenty of existant traditions that we don't need to create new ones that take our focus off of the traditions of the Church. Surely we can all stand to lower anxiety, but I think that simply by taking the focus off of our selves and putting it toward the natural development of our calendar, our seasons and our traditions we accomplish this goal, not only in Advent, but throughout the year as we take the time to pray the Office together.

  4. Lovely comment, Kitty; I could not agree more. As I understand, Advent is a "little Lent": a time of repentance. Pastor Clint, I listened to about half of your sermon on overcoming shame. Unless I missed it, I did not hear the word "repent" once. If a person has shame, he has guilt. If he has guilt he is: 1) in a state of sin, or 2) like Luther, confused about the teachings of the Church.

    BTW, Miami (where I live) is not getting colder, but it is very dangerous.

  5. Not all, or even most, of the shame people experience is related to things requiring repentance. Much shame is grounded in other places, and even the shame mentioned in Scripture is not exclusively tied to systems of sin and guilt.

    Kitty, I think you missed the fact that almost everything I listed in this post is simply reminding people of existing traditions, inclusive of, in fact, vespers. Just click on the daily prayer link. House blessings are also not new, and are often conducted during this season. There's nothing particularly new about anything, simply a reminder of the ways tradition can center us.

    And if you don't think prayer and anxiety are tied closely together, I simply suggest reading the psalter again. It's all over the place there.

    1. Anonymous3:10 PM

      You are correct I was missing that, and I'm all in favor of exercising our traditions. It does seem that people forgo the season of Advent and just jump into Christmas. It's like Easter without the cross of Good Friday. It also seems harder and harder to find a church that is open for Morning and Evening Prayer on a daily basis.

      I'm aware of house blessings, but where does one find a Lutheran liturgy for one?

      I'm not sure what you mean by the connection between prayer and anxiety. I was questioning Advent being a season for reducing anxiety. It seams more to me that the readings for advent are rather anxious: They're all about the coming of an awe-full King. We may be talking across each other. Perhaps you refer to the anxiety of the old Adam living in the world, preparing for Xmas. I'd agree that that anxiety should be abandoned, and certainly a practice of praying with the church can help that.

      I think your first few sentences may have been addressed to an other person but...

      As far as shame and repentance go, as we are all slaves under original sin, is not our shame a result of sin?

      Genesis Chapter 2

      25 And they were both naked, the man & his wife, and were not ashamed.

      Genesis Chapter 3

      ...& they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge leaues together, and made themselues aprons.

      8 And they heard the voyce of the LORD God, walking in the garden in the coole of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselues from the presence of the LORD God, amongst the trees of the garden.

      I would argue that based on this all shame does come from sin, however, I'm not quite sure how to repent of original sin, but I'm sure that that's covered in the corporate confession in the Divine Liturgy.

  6. The repeated refrain and message to Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds from the angels is: do not fear. So this is my overall theme for the Advent season, and I think anxiety is intimately tied in to that. Jesus' call in Luke 21 to stand up, your redemption draws near, is also tied into this concept.

    1. Anonymous4:24 PM

      Are you saying that the words of the angels (rather scary beings) to not be afraid because "even though I'm like nothing you've imagined, and pretty terrible, I'm not going to hurt you and I have some good news" is the same as a saying don't stress this "holiday season?"

      I appreciate the message of fear not. But I'm also a little suspicious of it. How does this idea relate to the discipline of daily prayer that you are advocating. How does this fit in with the tradition of concentrating on the last four things, or the readings from the Sundays in Advent? Also the meanings of the ten commandments from the Small Catechism come to mind: We are to fear love and trust God...

      In some ways your Advent concentration seems like the Christmas message, or if it is an Advent message perhaps for Gaudete Sunday, when in one cycle we do have the annunciation story.

      (Are you familiar with the story that the idea that the angel may have been talking to him self when eh said "Fear not" too Mary because he was in awe of the Theotokis?)

      Is there a type of anxiety that is good or appropriate in Advent: a kind of nervous excitement as we trim our wicks while those foolish virgins are out at "holiday parties?"

      I'm not finding your quotation in Luke 21. Remember we may be working from different translations. I am coming across a lot of really scary stuff that reads like Daniel though. what's the verse?

      And please do pass on that resource for a Lutheran house blessing.

  7. Kitty & Clint -- The quote from Luke is verse 28. My question is: What do you think the fig tree is? I think it is Israel.

    Now the rest of what you are discussing is very interesting. I had a house blessing done a couple of years ago. You can check out what the RCs do.

    The thing about shame is a no-brainer. Everyone knows what you are talking about. I was ashamed because my slip was showing. Well, yes... but I am not going to confess that.

    1. Anonymous12:12 PM

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    3. Anonymous2:21 PM

      I am hoping that Pastor Clint, will share this resource with us as I would like something that reflects our Lutheran tradition.

      I also feel that you might like me to say something like: "Well of course it comes from Rome."

      Instead I give you this quotation from the introduction to my copy of the Small Catechism:

      “The Evangelical Lutheran Church is in reality the old original Church which came into existence on the day of Pentecost. Luther simply threw out the errors which had crept into the Church during the course of the centuries, and held fast the doctrines taught in God’s Word.”

      I will comment no more in regard to this on this thread as it seems to be off topic.

    4. http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2005/12/chalking-door.html

  8. What an excellent reminder this post is to slow down, and to celebrate Advent with hope, joy, peace, and love. Yes, Advent is a time for repentance and contemplating salvation, but it is also a time to contemplate God's grace. In our modern day life, the celebration of Advent is a way to fully embrace the meaning of the incarnation and de-emphasize the American consumer culture that secularizes Christmas and begins it at Halloween.

    1. Anonymous11:43 AM

      I agree this a great reminder to, as Thoreau said, "simplify". and as I've been corrected and now see it is an encouragement to participate in the Office, the Daily Prayer of the Church.

      What I'm trying to figure out is when this idea of Advent as a time of joy, peace and love came in to the conversation. Hope always accompanies penitential seasons. There is the hope of forgiveness.

      It seems that in my studies (I am no expert, which is why I continue to ask these questions.) that the winter is a dangerous time: Woton coming out of the sky in his sled judging mankind and carrying away those he finds unworthy; Krampus preceding the arrival of Saint Nicholas in the alpine regions of the German speaking world; the pre-Victorian celebrations of Christmas or the winter season in England were extremely dangerous which contributed to the limiting of Christmas celebrations.

      Granted, these are mostly pagan celebrations or vestiges of Pagan celebrations, but as there is much acculturation of local customs into Christianity, and our traditions in many ways mirror Pagan celebrations it makes sense that our late Autumn and winter celebrations would focus on Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell.

      Think of the hymns that we sing in Advent: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", "But For You Who Fear My Name", "O Savior, Rend the Heavens Wide". As I question above: Is there a type of anxiety that is good or appropriate in Advent: a kind of nervous excitement as we trim our wicks while those foolish virgins are out at "holiday parties"?

      I think that a true return to our traditions, to seasonal celebrations is an excellent combatant to American consumer culture, but for me p great part of that is not celebrating Christmas until it actually is Christmas, and then celebrating it for its proper 12 days. In my home we don't have any Christmas parties until it actually is Christmas (usually on Saint Stephen's or Holy Innocents when we can gather with our friends around the piano and sing the Wren Song or the Coventry Carol).

      Thinking of consumer culture:

      I was in Macy’s just before thanksgiving. Most of the decorations were up, but Santa wouldn't be there until Thanksgiving. Even so I stood under the sign that flashed “Believe.” I couldn't help but wonder in what does Macy’s want me to believe. I asked a handful of employees. “Believe in Macy’s.” All you need to believe at the Xmas season is Macy’s. To believe in Christmas One must believe in the incarnation of God in his death and resurrection, in the promise of the world to come.

      Don’t get me wrong. This season I’ll have enjoyed songs about cold, snow, sleigh rides and skating through out the frigid nights of Advent, but I’ll be celebrating the New Year for four weeks as I remember my mortality, and my lust for Hell, that I deserve God’s judgment, and the promise of heaven. Thank God for Advent, the Incarnation, Epiphany, Jesus’ Death, and Resurrection, Pentecost, and all of our feasts and commemorations in their proper seasons. When we keep the season of Advent in the world as well as the church we are united with the poor, the stressed, the estranged. We can sit with them and be judged. We can take them by the hand to the manger on Christmas eve. When they ask us “What is Christmas?” We can tell them because we've been with them.

    2. Kitty -- I very much enjoy reading your comments. You are a deep thinker and I agree with almost everything you say.

      I, too, am trying to look beneath the surface. One of the things that troubles me about the post is the mention of "breathing." Yes, I know that we can find monks who do (did) this practice -- maybe the questionable Thomas Merton -- BUT -- this is NOT traditionally Christian -- it is Eastern.

      Today, the people are very confused. The ELCA is declining and the leaders cannot understand why. The introduction of "Emerging" ideas is not helping -- in my view, this is just more heresy and confusion.

      Kitty -- continue to ask questions. So will I.

  9. Kathy, what I don't really understand is why you persistently comment on my blog always saying something about the ELCA or Emergent church. It becomes very repetitive and really not very helpful. I wish if you wanted to make a blog critiquing the ELCA or Emergent church, you would create your own.

    In the meantime, if you'd like learn more about how much breathing has been a part of Christian faith since its inception, I can do no better than to point out it is at the heart of the Jesus Prayer in Eastern Orthodoxy, the centering prayers of Roman Catholicism, and the Rosary itself. I don't think I'm inventing anything. Nor am I very troubled if there are worthwhile things we can learn from the "East."

    1. Clint, I do apologize for repeating myself about the ELCA & "Emergence," and I do take seriously your advice to start my own blog. My fear is that no one would read it. If I were to start a blog, would you comment on it?

      I must correct a couple of the things you said: As one who prays the Rosary, I know it has nothing -- zero, nada -- to do with breathing. It is about meditation -- for me, a Scriptural meditation.

      The "centering prayers of Roman Catholicism" are bogus. Centering Prayer is from the 1970s liberal movement, and has been largely discredited. Centering Prayer -- it came from Transcendental Meditation -- is still taught in some parishes and liberal universities, but most people stay away from it.

      Of course we can learn from other traditions -- the "East" -- but we must not incorporate these teachings into the Faith of Christ -- that is syncretism.