Journey through the Questions of Advent

Advent is about preparing ourselves to give attention to God’s great gift, Jesus Christ.  Sometimes we have difficulty believing we will see anything new. After all, we know the story. We’ve heard it year after year. What could we possibly see or hear that we have not seen and heard before? These devotions approach the story from some perspectives that you may not have considered. These devotions look at the questions of people in the Christmas stories and at some Bible passages that you may not have explored at this time of year. And as always when we come to scripture, God will speak if we allow ourselves to hear.

The traditional Christmas story that we present and experience in pageants, carols, and worship is actually a composite drawn primarily from three of books of the New Testament—Luke, John, and Matthew. The Gospel of Luke gives us many touching and dramatic “people stories.” In Luke we read about the prodigal and his elder brother, the healing of Jairus’s daughter, the story of Mary and Martha, the parable of the good Samaritan, the woman searching for her lost coin. Luke also gives us the people stories of Christmas: the shepherds frightened by the appearance of the angels, Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will bear God’s Son, Mary’s journey to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple for circumcision and offering the poor worshipers’ sacrifice  of two doves. The Gospel of John, always looking for deeper meanings in ordinary things, gives us a theological perspective on the Christmas story in its essay on the Incarnation (John 1:1—18). The Latin word came means “flesh”; to be “incarnate” is to be “in flesh.” John speaks eloquently of how God became flesh and came to dwell with mortals.

Matthew contributes a different view of the story because Matthew’s purpose is different. Matthew does not set out to tell us about the individuals in the drama but to show us how the Christmas events fit into a much larger picture. Matthew writes to show how Jesus’ coming fulfills Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah who would deliver God’s people. (This Gospel quotes more from Hebrew scripture than any other book in the New Testament.) Matthew also gives us the story of the unnamed Magi coming from “the East”—another country envisioned as a seat of religious wisdom and prophecy—to acknowledge Christ. The account of the Magi’s Visit demonstrates God’s movement beyond the Jewish nation and draws the larger world into the scope of the story.

Matthew’s account does not begin with the events and circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Matthew delves into history, listing Jesus’ genealogy for us. This Gospel aims to show that the child Jesus is the fulfillment of something God has been about for many generations—for thousands of years, in fact. Matthew’s genealogy begins the way we’d expect a biblical genealogy to begin—with “begats.” But curiously, among the men in Jesus’ lineage Matthew also includes the names of three women: Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. As you read this devotion we will begin to look at the themes of Advent by examining these three women and the questions they and their lives raise. We will explore Zechariah’s question, then the questions posed by Mary and by Elizabeth, and finally the question asked by the Magi. The last week of this devotion is meant to be use after Christmas in the first week of the new year, it moves to Epiphany. These people and the questions they ask offer a way to focus our prayer and reflection during the Christmas Season. Each of these honest searchers offers us instruction and models faithfulness in the midst of their questions.

Though designed for use as a personal devotion through a blog, it may also be easily used by a small group. Each week’s Main reading also includes material for individual use between the meetings. Resources for the individual include three components: Reading, Reflection Questions, and suggestions for Prayer.

Readings: Will be posted every Sunday (the first day of the week). Each chapter focuses on a question asked by one of the people named above. These readings are short and usually can be read in 15 minutes or less. If you begin the week by reading the chapter, that content can frame daily reflection times over the following days.

Refection/Journaling Questions: At the end of each chapter, you will find suggested daily Bible readings for 5 days (Monday-Friday)with reflection questions that build on these Bible passages. Daily reading and reflection enrich our attending to God during Advent. Begin this reflection time with thirty to sixty seconds of silence to quiet yourself, to become mindful of God’s presence. End your silence by asking God to open your mind and heart to what the scripture may say to you.

Breath Prayers: Each reflection also suggests a “breath prayer” to use until the next reflection  time. These breath prayers are adaptations of an ancient Christian prayer known as the “Jesus Prayer.” That prayer is very short: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Early Christians prayed this prayer continually, fitting it to the rhythm of their breathing. That practice, of course, is the origin of its being called the breath prayer. The address, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” is said inwardly while inhaling. This act symbolizes taking in God and what God wants for us. The petition “Have mercy on me, a sinner” is prayed inwardly while exhaling. That second phrase symbolizes releasing sin. The breath prayer was a way of praying “without ceasing,” as 1 Thessalonians 5:17 directs. Sometimes people shorten the parts of the prayer to “Lord Jesus Christ” or “Lord Jesus” and “have mercy on me,” or even to “Jesus” (inhaling) and “mercy” (exhaling). This extremely shortened form of the prayer is the source of its designation as the Jesus Prayer. The breath prayers suggested in this devotion are just that: suggestions. You may want to compose your own breath prayers to pray during the Christmas Season. Six to eight syllables work best. One part of the prayer is a name for God that is meaningful to you; the other part is a short petition such as “Give me joy” or “Teach me to love.” Do Whatever seems to fit best with your way of praying.

I invite you to join me and these questioners. Even if you have not used disciplines such as praying a breath prayer before, allow yourself to experiment with them this year. There is no magic in the disciplines, but they are a way to consciously place yourself in God’s presence. What are the questions you bring to God? Are yours some of the same ones asked by these folks in the Bible? This devotion offers a chance to explore your questions and theirs in company with other believers. May each of you hear what God says to you and, through these stories, to all of us.

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