Many years ago I participated in monthly “Celtic Worship” services at a Seattle-area Presbyterian Church. I was part of the band for the service, playing Irish and Scottish tunes on my hammered dulcimer or strumming along on my guitar. We modeled the services after the worship services held at the Iona Community in Scotland, on the isle of Iona. One of the unique features of their worship is the occasional inclusion of a “symbolic action” as part of the service. The action may be as simple as lighting a candle. Or it may require more effort. A creative series of symbolic actions for Palm Sunday, for example, includes not only waving palm branches, but also waving first century versions of protest signs with catchy phrases such as ,
“Cut the Taxes!” or “Soldiers go home!”.
My favorite symbolic action from the Iona community is one they suggest for the season of Advent, those four weeks when we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. On the day of this symbolic action, a roughhewn wooden cradle is constructed in the front of the sanctuary. Each worshiper is given a long strip of cloth, about two inches wide and a few feet long. During the service we are encouraged to consider how in this particular year, at this particular time in our lives, we are preparing for Jesus’ birth. We often think about how we are preparing for Christmas, but how are we preparing for Jesus? After a time of silent reflection, each person comes forward and places their strip of cloth in the cradle. As they do so, the rough wooden cradle is transformed into a soft and beautiful place for the baby Jesus. I have pondered this image for many years. I have noticed that by myself the one strip of cloth I bring would never be enough to prepare the cradle - but woven together, our strips create a patchwork quilt for the baby’s bed. I wondered as I watched this scene unfold, how am I preparing to welcome Jesus anew into my life and heart? And I realized in a more profound way that however I welcome him, welcoming him together with others in the family of faith brings about something more than I can ever accomplish by myself.
I don’t know if there will be a wooden cradle in the front of the church this year, or if we will include this particular symbolic action during one of our Advent worship services. But I encourage you to ask the question it raises. How are you preparing to welcome Jesus this year, in 2014? That’s not the usual question we hear this season. We more commonly ask each other “how are you preparing for Christmas?” We can prepare for Christmas celebrations by doing many things – buying presents, decorating a tree, writing cards.
But I wonder how we are preparing to welcome Jesus this year? That’s a more personal and faith-centered question. Likewise, I also wonder how your strip of cloth, your preparations to welcome Jesus this year, may bless our collective ministry in this place as we seek to love and follow Jesus?
With prayers for a blessed Advent and joyous Christmas,