An Advent Calendar: alternate narrative, subversive time

"I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God's saving powers. Our temptation is to be distracted by them. When I have no eyes for the small signs of God's presence ... I will always remain tempted to despair." -- Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen, Gracias! A Latin American Journal (1983)

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” -- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)

"Let's do less." That's likely the one thing you will not hear in the month of December.

And you might not hear things like "Let's be more quiet." "Let's slow down." "Let's simplify our church life." "Let's spend less." "Let's celebrate Saint Nicholas Day and give away gifts instead of receiving them."

I find that one of the most difficult things to be at this time of year is a Christian. The clang and bombast of messages that blare at us from Halloween to Christmas Day, even from our own churches, generate enough psychological dissonance to make even the most sanguine among us a crabby mess.

We spend more than we can afford. We eat beyond a point of satisfaction. We keep at bay upsurges of anger during traffic jams. We grow irritable at the mobs that jostle against us in shopping centers. Joyful music seeps, metallically thin, through the gas station speakers, while a sadness gnaws at us about the actual state of our close relationships--that they're not nearly as good as we secretly wish they were. While we feel excited to purchase gifts for family, we worry that we might give an unappreciated gift.

From a breathless sprint through Thanksgiving Day, we hurtle warp speed to Christmas. Out of the euphoria of Black Friday, we plunge into a blockbuster of noise: Buy this. Be happy. Hurry up. Sing louder. Pray more. We're late. Do more. Get involved. You're behind. Call your mother. Dress up. String the lights. Just believe.

We tumble through December 25, with little sense of rhythm except perhaps that we're supposed to wear red, sing "Joy To The World," open gifts and eat another multi-course meal, then dismantle it all on December 26. But why? To what end? While the market coordinates the timing of our actions, with a subtle injection of a dominant storyline, our personal traditions sustain us as best they can.

But what we really need is to be caught up into something bigger than ourselves--bigger than our families and our churches even.

This is where the church's liturgical calendar steps in with a counter-narrative. Whereas the Gregorian calendar establishes January 1 as the beginning of a new year, Christians historically have regarded the season of Advent of the beginning of time. It's a subversion of time as we know it. For Christians, as the German theologian Karl Barth reminds us, time occurs in the “sphere of grace,” not in an economy of scarcity. At the Fall, humanity becomes lost and tumbles into lost time. Fallen into sin and isolated from God, humanity now experiences time as distorted and frustrating. But even as time begins in grace, so God in his covenant offers again to humanity the “time of grace.”

In such a grace, time does not flee but flow, it is not empty but fulfilled.

This is the kind of ecology of time that Advent invites us into, and my wife Phaedra has created an Advent calendar that offers a series of daily exercises and practices that allow this gracious notion of time to be deeply embedded in our hearts and bodies, with curative consequences for our neighbors.

I realize not everyone feels overwhelmed by this season, but if you've been looking for a way to make Advent and Christmas more meaningful for yourself and your family and friends, this is a great place to start. Looking over the exercises last night, I got excited to do them ourselves and to see what might happen to us and through us.

Advent starts next Sunday. If you put in your order today or tomorrow, Phaedra can mail the calendar to you in time for the beginning of a holy, life-giving season. Please see here for details about the calendar.


Instead of opening a gift each day of Advent, this calendar supplies an activity of prayer, service, or attention, helping you be mindful during this beautiful season. The card for each day comes with an activity printed on the back to do with your family, friends, or housemates. Each action is simple and easy to do without much, or any, planning. Focusing on giving to others, loving well, and having a contented heart, makes Advent an enriching and refreshing season.

The images on the cards for each day come from vintage Bible story books, old fashioned Christmas cards, Christian art images, Nativity scenes, and even vintage carol sheet music. The colors of the cards coordinate to be beautiful when all hung together. Browns, sepia tones, black and white, and earth colors lend a simplicity to the calendar. Advent is a season of simplicity and waiting, so having a more quiet palette for this Advent calendar seemed appropriate.

The service, prayer, or attention activity is printed on the back, along with a vintage postcard mark giving the card an old-fashioned feel. Each card is slipped inside a glassine back with a number sticker on the front. Green washi tape gives just a little embellishment to the sticker.

The cards themselves do not have numbers on them so that you can put them in the order that seems best to you and most meets your needs. The only card with a specific day attached is the one image of St. Nicholas, which is meant to be put in the 6th card in order to fall on St. Nicholas Day.

This Advent Calendar comes with: 

25 Glassine Bags with Number Stickers
25 Clothes Pins
25 Vintage Christian Christmas Image Postcards with Activities on the back
Brown Twine to Hang the Calendar
Simple Instruction Sheet for Hanging and Use

Everything you need to set up your calendar as soon as it arrives! Just put nails or hooks in your wall, or on your fireplace mantle, and you are all ready to begin Advent.

Service activity examples:

1. Make or buy your mail carrier treats and place them in the mail box. Add a note thanking them for their service.

2. Pick up trash all day long. Thank God for the beautiful earth that He made for us. Pray for those working hard to protect His creation.

3. Pay for a stranger's coffee or meal. Do this anonymously by paying for the person behind you in the drive through, or let someone standing in line with you know that you are going to treat them.

4. Light candles in your windows and pray for those who are lost without a light in their darkness. Pray that the light of Jesus will shine brightly this season.

5. Turn down your heat for a day. Pray for those without a way to get warm this winter. Pray that God will provide for them and protect them from harm.

GO HERE to see details about the Advent Calendar. And please pass this along to family and friends to help Phaedra spread the word. Thanks!


Haley said…
Just beautiful... When I click the link it says the item is sold. Are there any more? Please contact me at haleyballast (at) gmail (dot) com if it's not too late to order. Thanks!
Hi Haley,

Phaedra here! I just listed 10 more in the shop, so you should be able to purchase one now. Thanks for checking in about the calendar, let me know if you have any trouble. :)

Unknown said…
Hi David,

I love this article and the "re-imagined" Advent calendar you've got going on. I run a little worship-centric site over at and I would like to feature your article/idea in the December online issue of Doxology. If this is something you're interested in, please do contact me.


Justin Clemente
Justin, you're more than welcome to re-post this essay if you wish. Not sure how or where to contact you, though I visited the Doxology website, and your church websites too. Just friended you on FB.
Nancy said…
I was so busy that I did not read till after Christmas. Would love to have for next year. Is it still possible to get? Nancy
Nancy, it is still possible to get a copy of one, though you might wish to wait till the end of 2013 to purchase one, just in case Phaedra makes any alterations to it. But thanks for your interest and Phaedra is always grateful for the help in passing the word along about her shop.
luke simmons said…
Is it possible to get one of these for 2013?
Luke, (and Nancy) - The calendar is up in the shop again this year. Just a few adjustments to last years model, but essentially the same. Let me know if you have any trouble finding it!

Molly Irwin said…
Hello! True post about the worldly pull of the season. Does Phaedra plan to release the calendars again for 2014? I would love to order one. Thank you. --Molly
Molly, thanks for asking. That's very kind of you. Phaedra is tempted to put one out this year but we've got too much going on. Her hope is to make a new calendar for Advent 2015. So stay tuned!
Unknown said…
Is Phaedra working on one for this year? If not, can anyone point me to another advent activity similar to this? Thanks
Jerad, unfortunately Phaedra does not have the time to pull together another Advent Calendar effort. Hopefully next year. I'm not sure who else is doing something like it. Perhaps the Liturgy Fellowship group on Facebook might know.

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