Episode 67: “Virtual Advent” featuring Anna Petrin

Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 67: “Virtual Advent” featuring Anna Petrin

How can Advent be special in a year when so much is different? Professor of Worship Anna Petrin shares ideas for bringing Advent from the sanctuary to the home and allowing its themes of longing and hope to speak to our current reality.

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How can Advent be special in a year when so much is different? In this episode, Professor of Worship Anna Petrin shares ideas for bringing Advent from the sanctuary to the home and allowing its themes of longing and hope to speak to our current reality.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is the Rev. Dr. Anna Petrin, assistant professor of worship and chapel elder at Wesley Theological Seminary. Our focus for this talk is Virtual Advent. I’m very excited to welcome Anna to the program and particularly to talk about this issue, our challenge of virtual Advent. Welcome Anna.

Anna Petrin: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a joy to be here.

Doug Powe: Anna, I want to begin, most of our listeners are familiar with Advent. But there may be some who are not. Can you just give a little background on what is the season of Advent?

Anna Petrin: So the season of Advent is really a season of preparation. It precedes the feast of Christmas which we are all familiar with. And the way that the Christian year is set up, when we have a major feast like Christmas or a major feast like Easter, there is a season of preparation for that celebration. So in the case of Easter, we would have the celebration of Lent or the fasting of Lent. In the case of Christmas, we have a season called Advent. Advent is four weeks long. And it’s a season in which we are invited to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ child, for the celebration of the incarnation of God’s light and love, of God God’s self entering into human flesh and walking beside us as our brother. And so the season of Advent is really this preparation. As we move through the four weeks of Advent, we focus on different virtues of hope, of joy, of love. And each Sunday of Advent we celebrate our particular theme that helps us prepare for that coming Christ.

What I also really love about the season of Advent is that it kind of pulls double duty in the Christian year. So we’ve talk about it being the beginning of the Christian year. The first Sunday of Advent is the first Sunday of the year because we’re preparing to once again move through the celebration of Christ’s birth, incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, the coming of the Spirit — all of these good things. But in another way, Advent follows the Sunday of Christ the King. And so even as we’re beginning a new year, we’re also anticipating the coming King. We’re anticipating this eschatological fulfillment of all of these years. So what is really cool about Advent is that it is both the beginning and in some ways an end, as we wait to welcome Christ with joy when Christ returns.

Doug Powe: Anna, I want to pick up, you mentioned as you were talking about you celebrate a theme. Can you just share with our listeners what are some traditional ways congregations may celebrate those themes weekly if we were in “normal” or I should say “non-pandemic” times.

Anna Petrin: Yes. Non-pandemic times for which we all long. So usually the way that that theme would be most evident in the service or obvious would be associated with an Advent wreath. And a lot of congregations celebrate this by each Sunday you would light a candle related to that theme. So for example, you would light the candle of love. You would like the candle of joy. You would like the candle of hope. And then of course on Christmas Day you would light the Christ candle — the candle in the middle of the wreath. And so some congregations take this as an opportunity to invite families or members of the church to be involved in leading worship. And at my own home congregation we would invite a family up and each member of the family would read a Scripture, say a prayer, just introduce the theme of the week.

But more deeply that theme is tied through the whole service of worship. So not only would you have this moment where we fore ground that theme, but the readings in the lectionary if those are being used are related to that theme. So the Old Testament, reading the Gospel, reading the Epistle reading, and the Psalm reading are all connected and all tied around the theme on which we’re focused. So in addition to the readings, we would have the sermon, of course, where we are called to go and imitate these good things. And then also the hymnody really is a great way that these readings are highlighted. And so really the whole worship service becomes this engagement with the Word coming into our midst. So the really most obvious way that we see this would be an Advent wreath or lighting candles. But the whole service is a meditation on this theological concept in a lot of ways.

Doug Powe: So given what you just said, and how Advent really sort of framed the entire worship experience, now that many congregations are still worshipping virtually, what can pastors and worship teams do to start rethinking Advent so they don’t lose this sense of having this frame the worship experience?

Anna Petrin: This is a great question. And right now, I think it’s kind of the sixty-four-thousand dollar question. One of the ways that I think it will help us all to rethink the church here, starting with Advent for this long season of the pandemic, is by taking a step back to remember and to celebrate the way in which the church year comes no matter what is happening in the world around us. So even though this is a moment of pandemic, even though this is a moment of great social division and anxiety, there’s a lot happening for all of us right now. The church year comes. Advent will arrive. Christmas will arrive. And this sort of continuation of the church year, that it keeps moving forward, we keep moving into this mystery of God’s love for us over the course of the year, is a way in which we continue to embrace God’s promise in the midst of where we are here and now.

And so one of the things I’ve heard over the last couple of weeks is “how will Advent or Christmas be special this year if we can’t do the things that make it special?” I think the first step of that rethinking is to remember what makes Advent and Christmas special in the first place. And that’s the gift of God. That’s the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness can never and will never overcome. And so as we’re thinking about moving into this period of Advent, the period of Christmas, one way to do that is simply to take a step back in the way that we are thinking and talking and preaching, in the way that we are embracing the coming Christ in our midst, and remembering that really Advent is such an appropriate season for this moment. We’re in this moment of waiting. This moment of anticipation. Of longing to see our family members again. When we can travel. Of longing for a vaccine. Of longing for all of the things that will allow us to go about our lives in the fullest way. This is what the season of Advent is really about — a longing for this presence of Christ, the birth of Christ in our hearts that will allow us to live our lives in eternity in the fullest way.

And so part of this answer really is taking a step back and looking at the season with fresh eyes and remembering what makes this special to begin with. But I also think that another way to do it is to encourage folks to mark the liturgical seasons, to mark daily prayer, to mark the passing of time in their own homes, and to be creative with our congregations, to say, “You know normally we would invite you all to come into the church and decorate a Chrismon tree. Well, we invite you this year, here are a set of readings from the Advent season, we invite you as a family, or over Zoom with your extended family to meditate on these Scriptures together as you decorate your own trees.” So finding ways that the liturgy of the church can sort of spill out into the liturgy and the lives of our families and our parishioners in their homes is really what we’re normally trying to do anyway. But this year gives us an excuse to be really intentional about making those connections.

Doug Powe: I really appreciate the imagery you use particularly of thinking about this in terms even though we are struggling now, the reality is that Advent is going to come yet again, and we have the opportunity yet again to anticipate and wait with expectation. And we shouldn’t lose sight of the beauty of being able to do that. So I think that was really helpful. I also just want to pick up and you were talking about some practical things. So do you think there a way to still use the Advent wreath or to adapt that for use still by congregations.

Anna Petrin: Oh absolutely. One of the things that I really love about this moment is it’s tiring in the fact that we’re constantly having to be creative. But it’s wonderful in the fact that it’s a constant invitation to evaluate and examine our practices and think about again how they can spill out of the sanctuary and into our lives. And so I think there are a couple of ways that this can be done. One way is to think through how we can socially distance in an outside environment to do something like even decorating a Chrismon tree with different families coming at different times to take part in that. And if it’s outside, what a great way to share with the whole neighborhood and with the whole town depending on how big your town is. This waiting that we are engaging in together, this exciting moment of preparing to welcome the hope and the joy of all the world into our midst.

I think other ways we could do this are things like angel trees. I know at our church we have a tree where people take particular little tags or ornaments off of it and then we bring back a gift for someone in need. Those moments of mission are as important now as they’ve ever been. And I think that there perhaps are some creative ways we could do this in an online space where folks could order something from an online vendor and have it shipped directly to the church. So again it’s done in a safe way but it accomplishes the same end and it marks the same moment in the same traditions.

In addition to all of that, again I think helping us all embrace these traditions in our homes, whether it’s making an Advent wreath for your family — it’s really not hard to do — and providing maybe an Advent devotional for each day of Advent that each parishioner wherever they may be can join in praying the same Scriptures and the same short prayers. Inviting congregants to write for that devotional, perhaps. And allowing each person in their own home to light this light of Christ in their own home.

One of the things I often study is the early church. That’s really one of my great loves to study. And one of the things I love about the early church is that there is this beautiful relationship between the way that Christians pray daily in their own homes and in their own lives. And even having festivals and celebrations that are related to what’s happening in the church building, but it’s not all directly organized within the sanctuary. There is this way in which all of life ends up becoming consecrated by these hours and times and practices and prayer. And many of them simply happen in the home. Many of them are, the fancy-schmancy word for this is “domestic rituals.” Many of them are simply two people who are together, whether they are roommates or married, or whatever the living situation might be, having 10 minutes where they simply set that time aside and light their Advent candle for the day and offer words of gratitude or offer a reflection on where they’ve seen the presence of the Lord in this day. These are all really easy things. But things that are so easy to lose in the helter-skelter pace of a normal Christmas and Advent.

Doug Powe: And I think what is interesting is it actually allows for greater participation by the congregation because everyone will have an opportunity to have their own Advent wreath and do the readings in their home versus just one family or a couple of individuals doing it in the sanctuary. So you’ve actually expanded the way individuals can participate. You’ve mentioned a couple of times the Chrismon tree. And then you also added the angel tree. Can you share exactly what is a Chrismon tree and an angel tree and how these traditions are connected to Advent?

Anna Petrin: Absolutely. Sorry I didn’t define it. I get so excited about talking about liturgy that sometimes I forget to define terms. So Chrismon trees are a traditional way of celebrating Advent by hanging ornaments on evergreen trees, but the ornaments are very particular. They are ornaments that are related to the Christmas season, related to Christ the King, related to scriptural images of salvation, related to this focus on the coming of Christ. And so, unlike our family trees which tend to have all of our Christian imagery also tied up in wonderful family imagery, the Chrismon tree is a visual representation in the church building, of the joyful season of Christmas, of the lights of Christmas, of the coming Christ in symbolic form hung on the tree as ornaments. So it looks just like a normal family Christmas tree, but the Chrismons are a more intentional, almost like an iconographic portrayal of the Christian ideas associated with Christmas.

An angel tree is a little bit different. It has particular ornaments that folks can take home that have requests on them. So for example at Wesley Seminary, we usually have an angel tree and it will have requests for items that members of the community need. Angel trees relate to perhaps an elementary school where there are kids who might need some extra Christmas presents. Families that need a little extra help providing those Christmas presents. And so it’s an attempt to really walk with and serve those in our community who need our help. It’s really an attempt to see the coming of Christ in our neighbor in these angel trees. And so someone would take an ornament see their request and meet that need by bringing it back to the church so that it can be taken out into the community.

Doug Powe: I can see this year where particularly if you can do it safely, the angel tree certainly would be appropriate because the need this year probably will be greater than in some of the years in the past. I want to come back to the themes and thinking about the severity and the length of the pandemic, which most of us didn’t anticipate, how can congregations really think about and inspire and embody the theme of hope, given that we continue to receive the news daily that more and more people are being impacted by the pandemic?

Anna Petrin: I think there are a couple ways that this can be done. The first way that we do this every year is in this encounter with God that we have in Scripture. When we proclaim our sacred Scripture, when we read from the Bible in church, we know that we’re not just saying words, right? We’re not reading like we would read from any other book. Instead, this is an encounter with the living God that happens in our midst through the proclamation of the Word. And what that Word calls us to is to hope. And it teaches us to hope. And one of the things it teaches us is that hope is not simply a nice feeling. When we accompany year after year Christ, in the coming of Christ, in the birth of the nativity, what do we see in that nativity scene but a woman struggling in childbirth? This is not the sort of “precious moments” idea of hope that everything is pretty easy and it’s all gonna be just fine all the time. Instead, this is a hope that walks through this birth of Christ, through this difficult coming of Christ into the world. It walks with Christ and with the Holy Family into exile in Egypt as he’s pursued by Herod. It walks with Christ as the Lord as he encounters those who are sick, heals the sick, preaches the Good News. And it accompanies Christ even unto the cross and beyond the cross to the resurrection. And what we encounter in this Scripture is a hope that cannot be defeated. It is a hope that endures. And so when we talk about this hope that is enduring, it means that it endures something. There is something that presses it.

And so what we really can encounter this Advent is that the virtue of patience, that hope engenders. The virtue of patience, of bearing with one another in all things. And not simply talking about an easy hope, but encountering like we do every year, and again in a special way this year, the hope of a Christ, the hope of a Lord who enters into our darkness. And it names it genuinely. It names the darkness of the moment genuinely. It doesn’t try to gloss over the pain that so many folks are feeling right now, whether it’s from COVID in the loss of a loved one or loneliness or the struggle to figure out how to make things work right now in a time of economic uncertainty. It doesn’t offer an easy sense of hope. But what it does offer us is a sense of hope in the Lord who enters into all of our darkness and who is ultimately victorious over that darkness.

And so one of the things that I hope for (pun intended) this Advent is that we can really dive more deeply into that rich understanding of hope to which the Scripture calls us that sometimes gets a little glossed over by all the beautiful lights, and all the fun events, and all the Christmas parties, and all the things that I’m really gonna miss this year. But it’s an invitation to encounter a new dimension of the Gospel to encounter a deeper dimension of the Lord who is coming.

Doug Powe: So as you reflected on that, and I know and you mentioned this earlier that you love worship history, and I’m curious. Have you discovered anything as you have gone back into history that might be helpful for us today about how those in the past have endured challenges during their time? So have they been able to find this sort of deep sense of hope that you were just talking about? Or have they been able to embody the theme of Advent during their time when they were facing a challenging time?

Anna Petrin: Absolutely. And this is actually why I love liturgical history, why I love worship history. It reminds us that we’re not at all alone in whatever moment we find ourselves in. When we look back over the last 2,000 years of Christian history and Christian worship we find the church in all kinds of challenging times, whether it’s persecution in the early church or even pandemic and epidemic in the early church. I’m actually even working through some readings with one of my classes this semester on reading a guy named Cyprian who was a bishop during a time where there was an epidemic. And he was calling Christians to think about living differently during that epidemic.

And so when we look back over the course of history, we see all the way back, that there are Christians who face all kinds of challenges every liturgical year, during pretty much every time of the liturgical year. So the wonderful news is to quote Christ that “This is my rock. You Peter are my rock. And on you I will build my church. And the gates of the nether world will not prevail against it.” And we look back through history, we see that in fact the gates of the nether world have not prevailed against it. Christ is still calling us forth to new life in all of these situations.

I kind of already hinted at this earlier, but one of the ways that I think the early church and even the Medieval church really witness to us in these moments is by calling us as individuals to take our life of worship outside of what happens in that hour on Sunday morning or that hour on Wednesday afternoon. Calling us each to lead our own lives of worship. Whether that’s through Zoom with a community that we’ve gathered because we are alone in our homes. Whether that is by making a really concerted effort to call and check in on folks who might need someone to check in on them during this time of not only receiving the Word of hope but being that Word of hope and joy. Or again inviting some of those traditions that we do in the church building to enter into our home life.

So creating Advent wreaths in our home, creating devotionals that we do with our family on a daily basis, or being more intentional about thinking through all the symbols that we put up every year. Lights. Gifts. Wreaths. All of these symbols have this rich history grounded in celebrating the coming of Christ into the world. And being a little more intentional to remind ourselves that in many ways each and every day we preside over this liturgy of our own lives in the presence of Christ. And so no matter what comes, no matter what is happening this Christmas or this Advent season, Christ still accompanies us in that. And we can still have these rituals at home, these ways of worshipping at home that invite us into that coming.

Doug Powe: As I hear you talk it’s interesting. It almost sounds like — and I’ll test this out on you — that we have an opportunity to reclaim a practice that we may have misplaced. I’ll use that word and not say lost. Actually taking our faith and living it out not just in the sanctuary but actually more holistically throughout the rest of our lives particularly at home. Am I hearing you correctly?

Anna Petrin: Yes! I think this is exactly right. One of the things that we see in the early church, and sometimes we can be a little bit romantic about this, is the practice even of just daily prayer. Of Christians morning and evening having practices of reading Scripture together, praying for the church and for the world together. And that’s something that over time has sort of slipped away from many of us as life is so insanely busy, whether it’s getting up to catch the Metro in the morning. Or getting up to get to work. Or making sure that kids get off to school. Or whatever all of these wonderful mundane tasks of our daily liturgies are, it can be easy to lose that intentional moment of prayer in them.

But one of the gifts that we’ve been given, and it sometimes doesn’t feel like a gift right now, is the gift of being in one place. The gift of intentionally being at home, intentionally being in one place, and not moving around a lot. And that is a recipe for prayer. The gift of sitting still is really or can really be an invitation to recenter our life on prayer and to ground it there in a way that when we are running to catch the Metro hopefully one year soon that our life of prayer doesn’t slide away. But is that solid rock on which all of our lives are built.

Doug Powe: As we get ready to come to a close, I’m curious, you’ve talked about meditations and readings for families to do at home, are there resources that you can point individuals to that can help them to do these practices at their homes?

Anna Petrin: Absolutely. There are a ton of different kinds. And honestly Google is your friend here. But I want to talk about two kinds. One is a longer style of daily prayer. And there are even like periodical magazines that come once a month and this could extend beyond Advent for example. So there’s a little magazine of daily prayer called Give Us This Day. It’s published through Liturgical Press. And it offers a pattern for morning and evening prayer for every day of the month. And the nice thing is that it comes every single month. You can use it until the month is over. You don’t have to keep up with an extra book all the time or buy a really expensive set of daily prayer books. Instead you get the magazine every month. You’re ready for prayer every day. So that’s a great resource. It’s called Give Us This Day.

Another, and it also I think has an application, an app for phones. I’m a bit of a Luddite, so I tend not to use the apps. But it does have an app. I think in addition to that there are a series of books that offer more like a devotional. And so one is a really nice series by Liguori Press. And it offers you a daily devotional tied to a particular holy person in history. So there’s an Advent and Christmas devotional with St. Francis. That’s a particular favorite of my own family in my home. But there’s one with Thomas Merton. And they’re coming out with new ones all the time.

And so that would be not morning and evening prayer, but really it’s about a 15 minute devotional if you include lighting candles and you take extra time to meditate on the Scripture. So that one might be good for a family that has younger people that has small people who might not want to sit still for a really long period of daily prayer but might want to light candles and reflect on their own habits and practices. Because this Liguori Press has some really nice invitations every day to have an “Advent action,” if you will. And it tells you, “here’s something you can do today in your own family to embody the birth of Christ.” And it’s really a great series.

Doug Powe: Anna, I thank you so much. This has been I believe very insightful. And I believe our listeners are going to benefit tremendously from this. I appreciate you taking the time to share with us today. And prayerfully you know as we are in this period of waiting, the wait will shrink a little bit for us to move out of this pandemic.

Anna Petrin: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. And I really am every day in prayer for all of our pastors and all of our churches. Because I know that this is such a hard time for each of us individually already. But leading in this time is its own challenge. And I continue to be in prayer for all of us as we keep moving into that.

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About Author

Anna Petrin

Anna Adams Petrin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and a scholar who specializes in the history and practice of Christian worship. She is assistant professor of worship and chapel elder at Wesley Theological Seminary.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.