Savor the Season
Does Advent seem like a blur, a frenzied dash to prepare for Christmas? While that experience may be typical, there’s more to the season than that. In fact, Advent stands alone as one of the Church year’s most beautiful, meaningful times. We might appreciate it better if we paced it slowly. We may think we’ve heard it all before, but the stunning news of light dawning and captives freed bears repeating—and savoring.
What are our initial connotations for this season? Perhaps the liturgical colors: violet or purple. Maybe the theme of repentance, the quiet waiting and expectation. Or the hauntingly lovely songs: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Maranatha,” and in the final days, the “O Antiphons.” Or the symbols: Advent calendars with enticing little windows for children to open eagerly. Or Advent wreaths with three purple candles and one rose candle (or all white), lighted on each of the four Sundays until all four glow.
The candles on the wreath can be a measure of the season, a way to mark its stages reverently so that nothing gets lost in the rush. The wreath itself speaks without a word: evergreen as God’s unchanging care, circular as love, the ring without end. In Enduring Lives by Carol Lee Flinders, Sr. Helen Prejean writes of the rosary, a similar circle. When she returned home from the first execution she had witnessed at Angola prison, her mother met her at the door, the beads still in her hands. Prejean saw its symbolism in a new way then: the hand’s movement around the beads, the holding fast to love.
As we light each subsequent candle, time moves forward in measured ways. Love grounds and endures: fragrant green boughs anchor us and promise life even as the landscape outdoors may look snowy or barren. The wreath custom began in central Europe, when wintry roads became impassable. Wagon wheels were precious constructions, brought inside for safekeeping and hung from the ceiling. So for us now, during these four weeks, frantic rushing halts. We wait.
First Sunday: Crying Need
One candle may seem alone, frail in the darkness of December, during the shortest days of the year. But it speaks powerfully of our acute need for God. The solitary flame which could so easily be extinguished by a gust of wind or a careless hand reminds us of our own vulnerability. As the Leonard Cohen song says, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” In many areas we know nothing or blunder badly, though we may bluff or pretend arrogantly. This Sunday reminds us: It’s time to turn to God.
When we wait for anything important, we are powerless. The recovery of a loved one who’s ill, a change in the economic climate, an acceptance to a school, a promotion in the hands of a boss, a long-desired pregnancy: all are beyond our control. Recognizing we can’t fix everything may be a first step of Advent; acknowledging our own failures a realistic second step.
The prophets and John the Baptist remind us of our terrible culpability. As Isaiah 64:6 says, “Our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” We have betrayed our dearest loves, tried to solve complex problems with senseless violence, and placed our own interests above everyone else’s. And time is short. When will we heal and transform into the dream God had for us at our conceptions? The season’s tone is stark, definitely not sweet or soothing!
It might make us more comfortable with our chronic, nagging problems if we see them as the entry point to dynamic growth. Self-righteousness about our virtue blocks our path to God more than our natural, human failures.
To prepare a place in our hearts for a small Christ Child, we must dispense with any arrogance, pride, or falsity—sharp prods to tender skin. In the Magnificat, Mary says God comes into her lowliness, not her great virtue. The Creator of galaxies and oceans nestles into the arms of a young girl, rests in a little straw. The adult Jesus came to those who needed a physician, not those who were smugly self-righteous. No matter how cruelly we’ve sinned, God enters our worst failures and calls us friends.
Second Sunday: Embracing What Comes
Mary models the perfect response to God’s unexpected, even scandalous intervention into her life. When she told Gabriel, “May it be done to me according to your word,” she had no guarantees, no script foretelling the future. All she had learned was the trust handed on by great-great-grandmothers: If it comes from God’s hands, it must be perfectly tailored for me.
In times of central heating and plentiful food supplies, we no longer battle the winter as our ancestors did, finding it a precarious season to stay alive. Isolated from others, running low on resources, great-grandparents endured many cold, gloomy nights. How they must’ve rejoiced at those glints of light in dark forests, when almost imperceptibly the planet tilted toward spring and the days became longer.
We also have reasons for despair, crippling fears, anxiety over how much we need to do before Christmas. If problems are more serious, do we run from them or lean into them, wondering what they might teach us? Can we befriend our pain, knowing we’re more than its sting? Could we embrace, for once, an imperfect holiday not scripted by Martha Stewart but perhaps closer to the first, where an unmarried couple had to scrounge an inhospitable place to have a baby?