"People were invited to write their prayers of longing and put them in the empty manger – the same manger we would soon use for our Christmas pageant."
Going Deeper in Advent
Advent – as they say in Godly Play – helps us get ready to enter the mystery of Christmas. But as we all know, there is so much busy-ness and activity during December that it's hard to make time to stop and watch; to ready our hearts for the gift that God gives us at Christmas.
Last Advent at St. Aidan's, in place of one Sunday sermon, I invited our congregation to spend time at Advent-themed prayer stations set up around the church. I created eight prayer stations, and everyone – people all ages – spent 15 minutes choosing one or more stations to engage with. We played meditative music in the background, and encouraged folks to go at their own pace.
8 Advent Prayer Stations
1. Make-Your-Own-Advent Calendar
Instead of taking the form of a calendar, people were invited to choose enough construction paper strips in purple and pink for each day of Advent. On each strip, they wrote an idea for Advent that they could read each day as they built an Advent chain. I included a list of ideas of scripture passages, prayers, and acts of kindness and togetherness.
2. Imagining Ourselves in the Nativity Story
I put out a collection of crèche scenes, along with the printed Christmas narratives from Luke and Matthew, and invited people to imagine themselves as characters in the story. What would it have felt like for each character? We also put out a supply of little wooden people figures from our Godly Play classroom that could represent 'us' in the story.
3. Candle Lighting
Our congregation is accustomed to lighting candles to represent our prayers. For this station I asked them to light a candle and pray for a place in their life – or in the world around them – where God’s light is needed to shine in the darkness.
At St. Aidan’s we have a simple labyrinth painted on the floor. Just like the Holy Family, Magi, and shepherds, we too are on a journey to Bethlehem. People were invited to consider where they are on their journey with God.
5. Christmas Icon
We tore pieces from colorful Christmas catalogs and glued them onto a common poster to create an icon-like image of Mary and the baby Jesus. I had drawn the outline of the figures, and I had a pre-colored “key” nearby so they knew which spaces should be covered with which colors. The enjoyed turning commercial ads into a holy artwork.
6. Rock Painting
Since this season can feel heavy for many of us, I had a basket of small rocks and small brushes with outdoor paint. People were invited to pray for something that they are worried about or grieving as they painted words, images, or colors on their rocks. After the rocks dried, we placed them along our outdoor labyrinth to accompany the community in their walking.
7. Prayers in the Manger
Advent is a time of waiting and longing as we anticipate the birth of Jesus in the manger on Christmas. People were invited to write their prayers of longing and put them in the empty manger – the same manger we would soon use for our Christmas pageant.
8. Christmas Cards
I set out dozens of blank Christmas cards with pens and crayons and invited people to write cards for people that could use some love or encouragement. I set out addresses for folks from our own parish who are separated from us because of ill health or a move. Afterwards, I collected 30 cards to mail to parishioners, who would be thrilled to receive a card and know we were thinking about them.
Advent Prayer Stations – Why It Works
Advent prayer stations are always well-received by worshippers of all ages. People enjoy the creativity and also the quiet time to pray. Children love all the options, and parents tell me the time feels very meaningful to them. In addition to offering the stations, I always invite people to pray quietly in their seats, if they prefer; and a few people choose that option.
Advent prayer stations is very adaptable. This practice works for our busy family service, our more traditional worship service, and our Celtic service. I encourage you to adapt this idea to your context – worship, intergenerational event, retreat, formation time, or other venue. In the midst of December, your people will thank you.
Elizabeth Rees is the associate rector at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, VA and part of the creation team for the Center for Spiritual Deepening at St. Aidan’s. She has three young children (5, 9, and 12) and is always looking for ways to make church and spirituality more welcoming and relevant to kids and their families. You can read more of her work at reverendelizabeth.blogspot.com.