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The season of Advent begins a new year in the Christian church's liturgical cycle. One might wonder why our spiritual new year does not begin on Christmas Day, with the celebration of the birth of Jesus. After all, the secular new year we celebrate on January 1 is often symbolized by a fresh-faced baby being born just as Old Man Time dies the night before. So why does our religious calendar begin four Sundays before Christmas Day?

In thinking about this, I am reminded about the parable of the sower, who casts seeds on the ground in hopes of a good harvest to come. The seeds fall indiscriminately - on the path where there is no soil, on rocky ground, in thorn beds and in good, rich loamy soil that has been well prepared. Of course, it is only the seeds that fall on good soil that have the chance to flourish.

So, too, must we prepare our hearts and spirits to receive the gift of Christmas. God's love and grace fall on us all, but we may not always create the space to perceive the truth of this. By using the four weeks of Advent to prepare for Christ's birth, we hope that we may fully embrace the wonder of God's coming in our lives. More than that, we hope to be the "rich soil" that bears fruit by bringing God's love to others through word and deed. By starting our church calendar on the first Sunday of Advent, we have time to take part in the "New Year's resolution" of tilling our spiritual soil!

As Christians, we can feel like there are a lot of "Don't"s associated with this season. Don't get swept away with holiday shopping and materialism! Don't start singing Christmas carols in church until the 24th! Don't neglect your prayer life! Don't fill your children's stockings with stuff that will soon end up in the landfill!

And those are all good things to remember. But we mustn't get so swept away by the "Don't"s that we forget that Advent is primarly a time in which to nourish our hearts and souls, not to get legalistic about rules. A practice to help us with this is the lighting of the wreath on Advent Sundays. Each week, we light a candle to signify one of the four Advent themes. On the first Sunday, we light a candle for Hope. The second, Love, then Joy, and finally, on the fourth Sunday, Peace. What might our week be like if we carry these words through the next six days, intentionally looking for ways to experience and to offer each of these gifts?

A few days ago I was downtown browsing in Indigo's "faith and spirituality" book section, beside a young woman who was equally absorbed in the titles. We got to talking, and she asked for a recommendation. I waxed enthusiastically about Sister John Chittister's The Time is Now, an excellent book on civic activism, but it didn't seem to be quite the right fit. I asked her what kind of book was calling to her, and she said "I'm not sure; but something about... hope?" 

It was a good reminder to me that there is a time to act, a time to learn, a time to accomplish and a time to stand up to the "powers and principalities." And there is a time to quiet our thoughts; to wait with open hearts. To bask in wonder and in simple moments of faith and fellowship. To await the One who offers hope, love, joy and peace to all. 

Happy New Year! May your Advent bring you everything you most need to nourish the good "soil" of your soul.