Two years ago I made plans to go on a silent Advent retreat with my mother. I had been attending the overnight retreats sponsored by Karen Mains’s Hungry Souls ministry for several years. They take place midweek in the first week of December. It’s hard to think of going away at such a busy time of year, but I had found these retreats to be a beautiful way to focus my thoughts on Christ during the season ahead. This year I’d invited my mother to fly in to join me.
When I walked out of the house to put a suitcase in the car, our nine-month-old puppy followed me. He decided to make a break for it, dashing out the garage door and around the corner toward the local restaurants and shops with me chasing him about a half block behind. I watched in horror as he
ran into the street, straight into the wheel of a car. He was thrown back onto the snowy, wet curb and was in a snarling lump when I reached him.
I got him back home and wrapped him up in towels just as my mother arrived at my house ready for our contemplative retreat. I, however, was not exactly in a peaceful frame of mind. Instead I was wondering if our puppy had any broken bones and whether we should take him to the vet, and at the same time was feeling angry at his bad behavior (not the first such offense!).
This is the stuff of real-life spirituality. As we try to make space for God, our devotion is interrupted by the world around us as life presses in. Yet, a $325 x-ray determined that my dog was actually fine—just bruised—and so my mother and I did have an opportunity to open our hearts for the coming of Christ.
The weeks preceding Christmas can be one of the most difficult times for us to focus on God. We feel the weight of buying gifts, preparing for guests, putting up the Christmas tree and stringing the lights, baking cookies and fitting in parties all alongside our regular work lives. Sometimes it feels more like work than celebration.
It takes great intentionality to make space for Christ during the Christmas season. Maybe that’s why the Scriptures offer so many angles from which to view the birth of Christ—the perspectives of his parents, his aunt and uncle, shepherds doing a day’s work, far-off Magi and nearby despots—even the perspective of the prophets who preceded him by centuries. These Bible studies take up each of those perspectives in the hopes that you will get a fresh vision of the coming Christ.
When we allow ourselves to enter into it, Scripture reminds us that Christmas is not a task to be done but a celebration to be marveled at.
The Season of Advent
This guide has been compiled from LifeBuilder Bible studies with an eye toward helping groups and individuals to prepare for Christmas. The season of Advent begins on the Sunday directly following Thanksgiving and continues for a total of four Sundays. Christmas day is then celebrated as a separate “week” in liturgical tradition.
Epiphany is the celebration of the coming of the Magi. The Feast of the Epiphany is January 6. Many Protestant churches then regard the following five to nine weeks (depending on the date of Easter for that year) as the season of Epiphany. Epiphany ends with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
As you think about how to cover this material in six weeks, I would suggest beginning the week before Thanksgiving with study one, isaiah’s prophecy, and concluding with the sixth study on the Magi in the week after Christmas. You might want to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany as a group to conclude your study.
If you aren’t able to cover all the studies during Advent, you can continue into the Epiphany season, a very appropriate time in which to ponder the birth of Jesus. You might also want to pick three or four of the studies and cover them during this Advent season and continue with the rest of them next year.
Meeting Christ in the Season of Advent
Below are some ideas adapted from Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross for meeting Christ during the seasons of Advent and Epiphany. Pick just one or two that are realistic for your life and an encouragement to you.
- Spend some time in silence rereading the Christmas narrative in the Gospels—whether for two hours or a day of retreat.
- Emphasize Christmas decorations that remind you of Christ, such as manger scenes.
- Get outdoors to enjoy the creation hallowed by Christ’s incarnation.
- Buy or make an Advent wreath and light the appropriate candle(s) at dinner each night.
- Light a candle and sit in silence for five minutes each day. Sit somewhere that allows you to enjoy your Christmas tree or a manger scene.
- Participate in an opportunity to give to someone in need through church or school.
- Plan one or two special activities to do with your children or your friends – such as a concert or a play.
- Keep your tree and decorations up until the end of the season on January 6.
- Host a leftovers party on December 26 for friends or neighbors.
- Save some of your gift-giving for the twelve days of Christmas, especially, perhaps, for the Feast of the Epiphany.
- Hold a Twelfth Night party on the eve of Epiphany.
May this Advent be one in which you are blessed with a renewed sense of the miracle of Christmas in the coming of the Saviour.
Suggestions for Individual Study
- As you begin each study, pray that God will speak to you through his Word.
- Read the introduction to the study and respond to the personal reflection question or exercise. This is designed to help you focus on God and on the theme of the study.
- Each study deals with a particular passage so that you can delve into the author’s meaning in that context. Read and reread the passage to be studied. The questions are written using the language of the New International Version, so you may wish to use that version of the Bible. The New Revised Standard Version is also recommended.
- This is an inductive Bible study, designed to help you discover for yourself what Scripture is saying. The study includes three types of questions. Observation questions ask about the basic facts: who, what, when, where and how. Interpretation questions delve into the meaning of the passage. Application questions help you discover the implications of the text for growing in Christ. These three keys unlock the treasures of
Scripture. Write your answers to the questions in the spaces provided or in a personal journal. Writing can bring clarity and deeper understanding of yourself and of God’s Word.
- It might be good to have a Bible dictionary handy. Use it to look up any unfamiliar words, names or places.
- Use the prayer suggestion to guide you in thanking God for what you have learned and to pray about the applications that have come to mind.
- You may want to go on to the suggestion under “Now or Later,” or you may want to use that idea for your next study.
Suggestions for Members of a Group Study
- Come to the study prepared. Follow the suggestions for individual study mentioned above. You will find that careful preparation will greatly enrich your time spent in group discussion.
- Be willing to participate in the discussion. The leader of your group will not be lecturing. Instead, he or she will be encouraging the members of the group to discuss what they have learned. The leader will be asking the questions that are found in this guide.
- Stick to the topic being discussed. Your answers should be based on the verses which are the focus of the discussion and not on outside authorities such as commentaries or speakers. These studies focus on a particular passage of Scripture. Only rarely should you refer to other portions of the Bible. This allows for everyone to participate in in-depth study on equal ground.
- Be sensitive to the other members of the group. Listen attentively when they describe what they have learned. You may be surprised by their insights! Each question assumes a variety of answers. Many questions do not have “right” answers, particularly questions that aim at meaning or application. Instead the questions push us to explore the passage more thoroughly. When possible, link what you say to the comments of others. Also, be affirming whenever you can. This will encourage some of the more hesitant members of the group to participate.
- Be careful not to dominate the discussion. We are sometimes so eager to express our thoughts that we leave too little opportunity for others to respond. By all means participate! But allow others to also.
- Expect God to teach you through the passage being discussed and through the other members of the group. Pray that you will have an enjoyable and profitable time together, but also that as a result of the study you will find ways that you can take action individually and/or as a group.
- Remember that anything said in the group is considered confidential and should not be discussed outside the group unless specific permission is given to do so.