Advent comes at the end of the year OR the beginning of the year, depending on your perspective.
In terms of the solar calendar, it is timed with the Winter Solstice when it is the darkest time for us in the northern hemisphere. It is a time when nightfall seems to invade the day earlier than normal, always affecting my spirit. The time of daylight is diminished making a not so subtle point as to the dominance of darkness in the fluid polarity with the light. Just as the sun goes down each evening, the sun seems to be absconding with the light that brightens our existence. As if there were a cosmic theater director, it is accompanied by colder weather, adding to the feel and tone. For me, it messes with my mood.
This is when the Church has chosen to dramatically play with the theme of darkness and light. On Advent One, a single solitary light maintains its place within the darkness. Each week, one light is added to the Advent wreath of greenery to make the sensual point of the light coming into the darkness. Liturgically, it is the season of hope coming into despair, of light breaking through the darkness with the very Light of the World, what Christians claim is the key to understanding what life it ultimately all about..
I remember before I became a catholic, sacramental participant, Advent wasn’t even on my radar screen. After the Thanksgiving parades, Georgia Tech-Georgia Freshman game, a family feast of turkey and dressing, it was a countdown to the Christmas holidays, the arrival of the Sears Wish Book for perusal and coveting practice, and the transition from football to basketball.
Christmas Eve might be a service, maybe not. My first Christmas Eve Eucharist, as in communion at an Episcopal church, happened at the Cathedral in Atlanta when my high school girlfriend and I decided to attend the live broadcast of the Midnight Mass. I sensed the mystery of the whole gig without really knowing what it all was about. It was more about the romantic sharing of the time with another person, choosing just the right gift, and celebrating the special night. It was framed more in a social light, and I enjoyed it.
But my introduction to the true sense of Advent happened when I got to know the Trappist monks at the monastery in Conyers. I was introduced to the progressive notion of the season by a white bearded monk named Joachim who looked as if he was from Central Casting for Lord of the Rings. He had a kind of magic quality that seemed childlike to me, even in my old age of college. He recruited me to help him set up the nativity crèche outside the monastery church and to place and move the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph slowly toward the destination of the manger in Bethlehem.
That was Advent to me until my first Advent as a priest. I had been ordained in August, August 15th, the Feast of St. Mary, as I had requested, due to my devotion to the Blessed Virgin, thanks to that of my friend, Joachim. After all, I had carried her from Nazareth tot Bethlehem, at least there on the monastery grounds. We were close.
Advent has a special relationship to the Mary with her expectation of the baby Jesus, but particularly her receptivity of the intrusive news of this coming birth. As a kid, I was impressed by the willingness of Mary to be used of God. As a teen, McCartney’s simple phrasing of “Let it be” caught me in its radical receptivity. And then as a want-to-be biblical scholar, reading the Greek New Testament, the words of Mary shouted at me in my reluctance to hand over my agency to anyone other than myself. Let it be? Are you kidding me?
That first Advent as a priest found me in an idyllic setting of a Cathedral. It felt monastic as I was able to rise early, work-out early in the morning at the Buckhead Towne Club, steam and shower before joining in the communal Morning Prayer in Mikell Chapel. There, I would join a cluster of aging priests, often the Bishop himself, reading the Scripture for the day, chant the Psalms, and offer our prayers for the Church and the World. What a grand way to structure my day, to begin my work in prayer. It was, if you will allow me, damn near perfect.
Maybe it was the romantic sweep of the time, but I remember beginning Advent that first year, on that first Monday, like today, with the one lit purple candle on the deep green of the Advent wreath. I offered a prayer to God, doused with the young sincerity of fresh meat, asking God to surprise me, to break into my life in a way that will shake me up into a fresh apprehension of the Divine Presence.
I had absolutely no idea what I was asking. Rookie mistake.
I had no clue as to what was coming, or I would have ducked under my choir stall.
I asked. God delivered.
I don’t need to tell you the gory details of how my life was profoundly disrupted that Advent season. I will just say, it happened. Know that I could convey my meaning in a much more picturesque way….IT happens!….but I will spare you.
That first Advent as a priest, I learned to be careful on what one asks for. Do you really…..really….really desire to be receptive to what God has for you? Dare you say the awesome and awful words: “Let it be!”?
My world was turned upside down and life was changed in a profound way. Let me add quickly, it was a good change in the long run, thank you, Eagles. But in the rest of that season, it shook my foundations, disrupted my regular routine, and made me face some realities that I had been missing. This is the stuff of Advent. Expectation. A willingness to look afresh at the one, wild life one has been given.
These days, I approach Advent by looking in front of me, not so much as I do normally, sorting through my past, remembering the stories I have collected in my sojourn, searching for threads of meaning
I find that I tend to think spatially. It orients me, gives me a sense of being in place. So for me, Advent is a special season that is all about looking to the horizon, looking out in front of me for something new that is coming, even a surprise.
Surprised by an inbreaking insight, I learned something new about that a few years ago. I had wild experience when I had the opportunity to work at a hospital in Montana, in Big Sky country. The sheer open landscape made this legendary land come to life for me in an invigorating way, much as the rocky coastline of Maine redefined what the ocean was. It broke through my native familiarity with my Southern homeland, and quickened my view, giving me the eyes of a child, at least for a season, a moment.
It got even more real when a local told me about the expedition party of the famed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and how they came right through this very plot of land. After I did some research on that daunting trek, the sojourn became a powerful image for me in the Discovery Party of Lewis and Clark. After being commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, these explorers headed West to discover what was there in this wild country of ours. They planned on using boats and canoes to make their way through the West to the far edge of our country, hoping to discover a navigatable water route. Notably, they wound up hitting the Rocky Mountains, which stood as a rather imposing barrier that would test their resilience, their commitment, and notably their imagination. What do you do when the plans you made not longer fit reality? These explorers had to leave behind their boats and find a new way, one that was not in Plan A. Their willingness to change plans, alter mode, imagine anew, think outside the box, whatever the hell the “box” is, became a paradigmatic way of thinking about life. I found it energizing, refreshing. It seemed to fit with the spirit of what Advent might be.
Advent might be a time to consider another way to take as we move forward in our life. In the quiet preparation of Advent for Christmas, questions can prompt a new way of looking at our existence by pausing to ask what we are really wanting out of life? Do you dare to quiet your busyness and listen to what might be going on in your spirit. Dare you look to the horizon to what might be coming?
I have a few questions that I use to prime my spiritual pump. Take a few minutes, pause, and reflect on these four questions during these four weeks of Advent:
What gift do I have that I am not currently using?
What talent am I letting sit still inside me, dormant?
Who might need a special call, a “reaching out” to check on them that would make a big difference?
What do I need to celebrate this season and be more consciously aware of in my life?
My hope and prayer is that Advent might be or become an expectant time for you, a time to look afresh at your life in particular and the nature of life in general.
Here it comes….ready or not.