“Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” – Mark 13:33
And so begins Advent. I love that the Church launches into the new liturgical year and the four-week period leading up to Christmas not with the joyous news of Mary’s fiat or her visit to Elizabeth or anything Christmas-related but instead with a reflection on the second coming. Yes, we are working our way toward the celebration of the first coming, the Incarnation, the moment when God became one of us, but let’s not forget that this life journey we’re on is supposed to be about preparing ourselves for the moment when Jesus comes again. Very poetic, I think, the connection of the two comings at this time of year.
Sometimes it’s hard to think of Advent as anything more than just a happy time, brimming with excitement. Certainly at our house, Advent is fraught with fun. Every day the kids tear a link from the purple and pink Advent paper chain hanging from the kitchen window, open a door on the Advent calendar, hang an ornament on the little evergreen Advent tree, and gather around the Advent wreath before dinner. For them, this season is all about the countdown to the big day.
Unfortunately, that has a lot to do with our culture. In a society where people are willing to trample a fellow human being to death in order to get a cheap digital camera or TV, it’s pretty clear that we’ve kind of lost sight of the big picture and certainly the overriding message of this season. Advent becomes one big warm-up for the main event, and these days the main event seems more like a WWF throw down than the coming of the Prince of Peace.
For a long time, I was caught up in a spiritual version of the Christmas obsession. I had forgotten what this time is meant to be. I would declare that I was a Lent person, not an Advent person. Advent always used to seem a little too happy and optimistic for my taste. Then I started paying closer attention. While Advent certainly is a time of hope and joy, it is also a time of penance and sacrifice. It is at once a time of anticipation and a time of reflection, a time to rejoice in what we know is coming but to make ourselves ready for what is still to come.
This year I am in an Advent state of mind. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the first dusting of snow set the scene for the start of the season. Maybe it’s because a big work project is done and I feel a little less overwhelmed. Maybe it’s because I really do love, love, love Christmas and can’t hide my childlike excitement. Whatever the reason, I’m hoping I can find a way to go deeper in the true spirit of the season.
When I think about this season, I keep coming back to a Thomas Merton quote that resonates with me:
“God approaches our minds by receding from them. We can never fully know Him if we think of Him as an object of capture, to be fenced in by the enclosure of our own ideas.
‘We know him better after our minds have let him go.
‘The Lord travels in all directions at once.
‘The Lord arrives from all directions at once.
‘Wherever we are, we find that He has just departed. Wherever we go, we discover that He has just arrived before us.”
I find that quote very appropriate for this season, when we’re trying to fit God into our vision of Christmas instead of fitting our lives into His version of Christmas. But the God we’re looking for comes in His own way and in His own time. We just have to step out of the way, watch and wait.