Last week, as I was printing off the service sheets for December and preparing the Advent wreath, I sensed that we needed to do something different his year. Lighting our Advent candles just didn’t seem … enough. Each year I’ve been here, Advent simply hasn’t felt like Advent, but I’ve never been able to figure out exactly why.
I thought about what Advent is about. Anticipation. Preparation. Reflection. Elsewhere, that is taking place against the backdrop of a Christmas madness which has already been going on for several weeks. Church becomes the one place that the Christmas rush has not yet begun. So Advent offers a space to pause and breath deeply, to sit in the gentle flickering candlelight as we hear again the story of God written on this world, to know that it continues to unfold.
That is Advent elsewhere. And it is beautiful, and precious, and holy.
But there are no visible signs of Christmas at all here in Tiberias. So how are we to anticipate, prepare, and reflect in this context?
I thought of those who are worshipping at St Andrew’s these days. Our average attendance is around a dozen (that may not sound like much, but this time last year, it was four): UN staff and their families, Methodist volunteers supporting the pilgrim groups who visit the Galilee, people who have lived here for many years, and those who are visiting for several weeks. The community shifts as people come and go. It is still small and fragile. But it is a community. And most of our members are away from the country they call home, in this land where Christians are a tiny minority.
It occurred to me that maybe Advent looks different here from the way it does in Europe or North America. Maybe it looks a little more noisy, a bit more chaotic. Maybe it looks like a little community decorating together, adding to the decorations week by week until by Christmas the church is ready and we are ready to welcome Jesus.
Each week I will set out another box of decorations, or candles, or greenery, and invite the congregation to place them around the church at some point during or after the service. Yesterday we started with the tree, which slowly became more colourful as people came forward during the affirmation of faith, the intercessions, the peace, the offering, and after communion. After the service, over refreshments, we hung the rest of the ornaments and laughed and took pictures and shared stories of tree decorating ‘back home’.
One person said it felt like an act of prayer for her. Someone else declared it a new tradition to be repeated next year. Several told me how welcome it made them feel.
What I saw as I led worship was a church of God’s people joyfully anticipating, together preparing for, and prayerfully reflecting on the coming of our Lord.
That is Advent here in Tiberias. And it is beautiful and precious and holy.