For members of most Christian religions, Advent represents both the preparation for Christmas, the first coming of the Messiah, and the hope for a promised return.
The first Sunday of Advent is the Sunday nearest Nov. 30, the first of four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The Advent season lasts until midnight on Christmas Eve. In Saugerties, five churches cooperated in an Advent Walk from church to church, with music and a short homily at each. The churches also cooperated in collecting money and gifts for abused children in Ulster County.
Kay Winten, a Sunday School teacher at Atonement Lutheran Church, explained that the congregations walk to each of the next four churches, with a short service at each one, winding up at Saint Mary of the Snow Roman Catholic Church, where they could donate their gifts and/or money. “At Saint Mary’s, young men dressed as the Magi come down, and people offer gifts at the altar that go to abused children of Ulster County,” said Winten.
Many parishioners brought children to join the walk. Five-year-old Shawn Haaland attended his first Advent service with his parents, Gordon and Marissa. “I think he’s getting it,” Marissa said. “He’s learning; he’s getting it time by time.” They are members of the church, and their older boy, Dylan, was one of the three kings at the front of the church. The family lives in Hurley, but they come to Saugerties to give their children a Catholic education.
Another of the three kings, Matthew Belfance, participates in the service every year, as do his brother and sister, said his father, Fred Belfance. He and his wife, Alison, have three children. All the family members are active in Saint Mary’s, he said. “My wife teaches here; we have been coming to this church since we came to live here, that’s 16 years.” Their children are Theresa, Zachary and Matthew, who all attend Saint Mary’s School, and are well aware of the meaning of the services they attend and the holidays they celebrate, Belfance said.
In addition to the reading from the Bible describing Mary’s virgin birth, Rev. Joel Holland of the First Congregational Church read a more ordinary story; Max Lucado’s description of the Archangel Gabriel’s puzzlement at being asked by God to perform a miraculous birth for a Jewish girl rather than his more familiar missions, like sending fire and parting seas. He expected preparing the world for the Messiah to involve massive chariots and displays of fire, and he could not understand being instructed to bring a message to a poor Nazarene girl telling her to name the baby she was about to have Jesus. “Gabriel had seen babies before. He had been a platoon leader on the bulrush operation; he remembered what babies looked like. That’s OK for humans, he thought to himself, but God?”
Mary was an ordinary commoner, barely out of her teens, “who had a crush on some guy named Joe.”
Mary and Joseph were both confused as to what to do with this baby, the story goes, and Joseph “didn’t know what to do with a God that he could cradle in his arms.”
The story was continued at the Reformed Church, where Rev. Terrence O’Brien read Matthew’s description of how God spoke to Joseph in a dream, telling him “this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophets; look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emanuel, which means God is with us.”
The service included music director Lorraine Nelson Wolf’s arrangement of “What Child is This.”
Rev. O’Brien told the congregation that during the coming holiday season, they would “hear a lot about joy, peace, hope, love as we ministers extol those virtues of Christianity that year in and year out have become talking points during Advent season. This afternoon, though, I would like to extol another characteristic of Christianity, one that makes joy, peace, hope and love all possible.” The word, he said, is “yes.” While we can talk about the coming of Christ and the hope this brings, the gift of peace, of joy, “none of this happens until we say ‘yes.’ Saying ‘yes’ to God gives new meaning to our lives and to the coming of the Messiah.”
Rev. O’Brien invoked the time of Jesus’ birth: the false prophets, the many who claimed to be the Messiah and their fate, mostly execution. Yet, he said, Mary said ‘yes’ to God. And Joseph, “who is so often forgotten in the Christmas story, consider for a moment his role in bringing Jesus into this world.” As an unmarried, pregnant woman, Mary would undoubtedly have been rejected without Joseph’s protection, he said.
At the Saugerties United Methodist Church, Rev. Dr. Duane D. Buddle led the congregation in a series of calls and responses. His reading was from Luke, describing Mary and Joseph’s entry to Bethlehem for the enumeration and the angels, wise men and others who came at the birth of their son.
The reading from Matthew 2 concerned the news of Jesus’ birth reaching King Herod and his dispatching the wise men to find the child, and their fears that he meant him harm.
As the Catholic church was the last stop on the Advent Walk, the attendees brought their gifts or money contributions to be collected by three young “magi” in costume. Rev. Christopher H. Berean led the service, with a good deal of music from the choir.