Note to readers: I invited James Wetzstein to write a guest column for Advent. Wetzstein is a cartoonist, PhD candidate, and Lutheran pastor. Dec 10, 2023
Have you ever noticed how enterprising individuals can turn nearly anything into a marketable advent calendar by dividing the merchandise into 24 discrete pieces?
I prefer the traditional choice of chocolate, but now you can find beer, wine and even whiskey advent calendars. Sausage and cheese make for a December-long charcuterie board in 24 bite-size pieces.
For kids, there are small toys behind the little cardboard doors.
If you want to encourage your young charges toward engineering fields, you might buy the one with 24 science projects that, at the end of it all, yield an actual working radio.
Note: Be prepared to answer the question, “Mom. What’s a radio?”
The point of these advent calendars is that they give us a countdown to Christmas as, each day, we find the next numbered window. Open it to discover a treat inside, and then enjoy that treat anticipating the big day.
The counting also brings us an element of certainty. We start at the beginning, and we know when it ends. Christmas is only 24 chocolates from now.
The earliest advent wreaths had the same count-down agenda. The story goes that the 19th-century German pastor and advocate for those living in poverty, Johann Hinrich Wichern, created the first wreath to help the children of his community manage their impatience as they waited for Christmas.
The original wreath featured four large white candles, one for each Sunday of Advent. He added smaller red candles for each day of the week that allowed for daily tracking.
But the wreath’s shape — a circle — is significant in its own right.
Had Wichern simply been looking for a way to mark the days, a straight line (or rows) of candles would have done the trick. But the wreath opens up an entirely different story. It’s a story with an as-yet-undated end.
While the Advent season marks the days until Christmas, for many of us, it also marks a season of raised awareness of the promised return of Jesus Christ at the end of all time and of death’s inevitability.
Here’s the thing: nobody knows when that will be.
While each day brings us one day closer, we don’t know how many little windows we’ll need for that advent calendar.
The circle of Wichern’s wreath evokes the cyclical nature of time, inviting us to remember that one day follows the next through a cycle of days, months and years. In a productivity culture, this cycle is one of wanting and achieving followed by the need to want and achieve all over again. The cycle seems never to end.
Yet we know that the days of achieving will end at some point, and if all we have is achievement, we will have nothing but dust.
The Biblical texts read in many churches during Advent offer us a way through this endless cycle of days that will not be satisfied. In these readings, we hear Jesus teaching about the end of all things with images of destruction that seem bent on scaring us to death (Mark 13:24-37).
If it is true, as he says, that the most fundamental realities like mountains and the sun’s shining are subject to destruction, what is left?
What remains is the eternal love of God coming – “adventing” – that is, coming in love for the you that is you.
Wichern’s advent wreath forms an eternity of shape and it becomes your victory crown. It is the shape of love seeking you.
James Wetzstein serves as pastor for Valparaiso University. He is also a PhD candidate in Liturgical Studies at Notre Dame where he studies the interrelationship between theology and art. He draws a weekly comic strip for churches called “Agnus Day” at www.agnusday.org
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