Editor’s note: This blog originally is adapted from Introduction to Light in the Darkness: A Hymn Journal for Advent & Christmas (c) 2020 Next Step Press. Used by permission.
By Valerie Matyas
Perhaps you’ve seen Advent calendars with little flaps that count down the days leading up to Christmas. Sometimes there is a Scripture verse, piece of chocolate, or tiny trinket behind the door. Every day is one step closer to Christmas, a way to visually tick off the days leading to the Advent of our King.
These calendars offer an opportunity to intentionally collect thoughts, ideas, concepts, and truths spoken, read, and sung during the Advent/Christmas season. You are more likely to find something to take with you into your day or week if you are intentionally looking for something to capture and remember.
As a Visual Faith™ Ministry Coach, I often speak of people having a Spiritual I.E.P. (an Individualized Education Plan). You are uniquely and wonderfully made. How you engage in the Word of God depends on your particular learning style, so I encourage you to use this calendar (and the entire hymn journal) in the way that best suits you. Add color, jot down notes, capture ideas, and entertain the idea of sharing the experience (what you heard, discovered, learned) with someone else.
To be honest, I struggled with the concept of “quiet time” or “devotional time” as a young wife and mother. For me, it was a practice to be endured, not enjoyed. Devotions were something I did because it was the right thing to do, like eating vegetables, drinking plenty of water, and exercising.
It wasn’t until I linked the act of reading a devotion with creatively capturing the main idea that I became hooked. The capturing did two things for me.
First, capturing a main idea helped me read with intention: I was looking for what I could grab visually. Second, it created a reliable, doable, enjoyable experience. I like to draw; I like to add color; I like to be creative. Turns out, I like devotional time when I capture a central thought visually. That’s my Spiritual I.E.P. in action. Use these calendars to explore what your Spiritual Individualized Education Plan might look like. What ways of engaging Scripture and prayer resonate most with you?
The Light in the Darkness Advent Calendar has 25 blank spaces, one for each day of December leading up to Christmas. Just like those Advent calendars with Bible verses or chocolates, these spaces mark the days, except this time you get to add something that was meaningful to you on that day. It doesn’t matter whether you write or draw or collage or even change what you do from day to day. The important thing is to keep your antenna up to see what Jesus might be speaking into your life on any given day as you prepare for Christmas.
Staring at all of those empty spaces might make you feel uncertain or apprehensive. Take a deep breath. Allow yourself a moment to smile. This is not an assignment, there is no deadline, and no ribbons will be awarded. Those blank spaces are simply an invitation to experiment.
A good starting point for the Advent calendar is the shortest candle on the bottom right hand corner of the page. Each of the triangles radiating from the flame represents one day of the calendar. On Day One, pencil in a word or sketch and move clockwise each day until all five rays are filled. Feel free to use one of the three techniques listed below. When you fill up the five days of the shortest candle, move to the second shortest. Keep moving along with the small thin candles, choosing the next tallest for each set of five days. The prominent center candle should be reserved for the final days of Advent leading up to Christmas Day.
How are you supposed to fill all those blank spaces? Here are a few ideas based on what I have found helpful. Run an experiment and see what works well for you.
Capture Key Words
When reading a devotion, Scripture passage, hymn lyric, or listening to a Sunday or Advent midweek sermon, try to sum up the main idea in one or two words. Remember, the calendar isn’t designed to add another outside resource to your plate: it is intended to capture what you are already doing, where you are already listening, how you are already engaging.
Words and phrases I have penned for past Advent calendars are: Comfort, Hope to all Mankind, the Light Shines, Herald of Good News, and Rejoice. A simple word or phrase carefully lettered in a particular space of the calendar helps you to read with intention and remember the reading as you go about your day.
Sketch Key Ideas
Some devotions or Scripture readings are particularly image-driven. As I look over previous calendars, a simple shampoo bottle sketch reminds me of the “wash, rinse, repeat” cycle required for daily forgiveness mentioned in 1 Peter 2:1-12. A runner triumphantly crossing the finish line takes me to “the Hope of the Glory” found in Colossians 1:27. A neatly wrapped package with the tag marked “Eternal Life” helps me to remember the promise of Romans 6:22.
Reading a devotion or passage with the goal of pulling out the key idea/image and illustrating, sketching, or doodling it within the calendar space will allow the right and left hemispheres of your brain to communicate in a deeply powerful way. You will be reminded of the thought tied to that image each time you return to the calendar, be it later that day, later that week, or years from now.
Collect Key Experiences
A couple of years ago I took a different approach to a visual Advent calendar. Instead of capturing what was in my daily devotion, I decided to capture what was happening in my daily life. It was our first Christmas in a new congregation and so much was new, exciting, but quite frankly, often overwhelming. Never had our schedule been so inked, our plate so full, or our dance card fit to burst.
In a quiet attempt to make sense of the days’ events, I sat down and created tiny sketches that illustrated my life each day: a wrapped green and yellow gift marked a baby shower for an unwed mother; a piece of pecan pie captured an Advent by Candlelight; a mug of hot coffee noted a heartfelt conversation with a friend.
Tiny images like an ice skate, a plate of cookies, a gravestone with a wreath, a choir folder, an ice cream sundae, all vividly remind me of that Advent season. This is my life, sketched in my hand, recording what God was doing and continues to do, through me, in me, and around me.
Imagine yourself years down the road, looking back on what you sketched during this Advent and Christmas season. What new experiences will you have? What old truths will be confirmed? Who will God put in your path? What will you discover?
Be a historian of your sanctified life. Capture it, reflect on it, and share it with others. Tell the story that Jesus is unfolding in your life, the story of His faithfulness. You have the best seat in the house.