Advent, the traditional four week liturgical season of waiting and anticipation before Christmas, has accumulated a whole new meaning this year. Not only is it the traditional period of anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, it is also pregnant with the anticipation of a new presidential administration and the arrival of a much awaited Covid vaccination. And then there is the gift of the welcome arrival of the December 21, 5:02 am equinox when nature reminds us of a larger rhythm of life beyond our human drama. Advent this year is, indeed, a season of special anticipatory waiting and expectation.
But let me start with the Jesus part of Advent. I want us to appreciate and celebrate the powerful meaning the Jesus narrative provides. The biblical account of Jesus’ birth is such a compelling drama. It begins with the story of two dislocated young people giving birth to a tiny baby in extremely humble circumstances. And then the baby is heralded by both contemporary magi luminaries and lowly shepherds alike, as well as the stars themselves. But first he must escape being hunted down by an evil, jealous dictator before finally being acclaimed as a sacrificial savior and a prince of peace as an adult, and as an exemplary symbol of hope for the poor and the marginalized. The point is that the the theatric narrative of Jesus’ birth is intended to record the beginning of an extraordinary life. That baby Jesus, born of such unlikely circumstances, was to became an embodiment of devotion and prophetic discipleship to a personal God who also provided an inspiriting, transformative vision of moral possibility of peace and justice. We are invited during Advent to celebrate that life and vision.
But how easy it is to forget that the idea of Christmas gift-giving is about the celebration of the gift of a sacred and humble birth. Secularization and commercialization overwhelm the true meaning of the Advent and Christmas holy-day season. So the challenge for me is to try to imagine and recover what I can that seems closer to fulfilling the reason for the Christmas celebration. For example, during Advent I love the cheery lights in the streets that often bring me a sense of joy and delight. And I enjoy - within limits! - the Christmas carols and traditional songs that weave and swirl between the Jesus narrative, Santa’s good will, Frosty the snowman, and the seductive jangle of what to buy, buy, buy. But I mostly love our bright Christmas tree with ornaments carefully placed, many with a memory or an association with a loved one who is now grown or no longer present, topped with a whole array of angels to watch over us. The Christmas tree with its lights, angels, and memories become like little saints watching over me to remind me to celebrate the messenger of peace and good will.
And then behind all our Advent religious and cultural commemorations the earth has its own season and celebration at this time of year. The short days of winter and nature’s withdrawal into dormancy slowly edges into longer days, and we begin again to remember the return of light and warmth as we acknowledge the winter equinox. The presence of an ancient self in each of us somehow responds to the promise of another anticipated round of light, life and hope, whether we are conscious of it or not.
This particular Advent will forever be especially remembered, however, as a time of anxious waiting and expectation during a season complicated and threatened by politics and pandemics. The dictionary actually defines advent in terms, not just of waiting, but of arrival, "to come to;" in Latin, ad-venire. We await the arrival of a vaccination to end Covid exposure, and for most of us, we also anxiously await the arrival of new presidency. Neither of these “advents” provide the level of assurances we may long for, but after the anxious and trying times of these past months and years, we will have unique reason to anticipate a more hopeful Advent season this year.
I want to conclude with my personal reason for holding the Advent season as my favorite time of the year. For twenty years or more when I lived in Maine, I began Advent at the guest house at Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastery in the mountains of Vermont. My contemplative self loved the quiet walks in the new fallen snow, the 5 am morning prayers, the luxury of good healthy meals and time for uninterrupted solitude. I am trying to recapture the monastic experience by observing each Friday this Advent as a day of silent retreat. I recognize the extraordinary privilege I have in doing so, as I did each year in the past when I left my work and family for time away. But I also recognize how important it is to observe, as best we can, an attentive spirit of both waiting for, and the “arrival” of, a more authentic self when we observe a time of solitude and quiet. I encourage you to consider Advent as an invitation for intentional reflective time as well.
Blessings of safe, holy-days during the Advent season,