December can be a tough time for liturgical sorts. Like embarassed house guests caught snooping through the master suite, we slink around corners and head for the shadows, clutching our candles and garlands, listening to the silence ripple as we wait for the Great “O Antiphons” to begin, wondering, “Am I the only one here?”
“Here” is Advent. Designated by the Christian Church as a time of preparation before the Feast of the Nativity, the four week season has its own traditions, prayers and disciplines. The Advent Wreath and Calendar mark the passing of the days and heighten anticipation. The shimmer of candlelight softens the night and the beauty of liturgical prayer and song gives rest to the soul – but they certainly aren’t what our culture has in mind when it speaks of “getting ready for Christmas”.
“Getting ready for Christmas” generally involves multiple trips to the mall, or combing the internet for gifts in order to avoid going to the mall. Christmas preparation means work (“You want ALL of those lights to go up?”), frustration (“I know you wanted to go to The Nutcracker, but there’s no way we can’t show at Trevor’s party!”), and anxiety (“They’re coming to stay for how long?”). Getting ready for Christmas can be as complex and demanding as a frontal assault, as costly as minor surgery, and as stress-filled as a performance review.
Certainly I don’t begrudge anyone their Christmas preparations. I take as much joy in this season as the next person. I love choosing gifts, decorating my home, and baking those special treats that taste of childhood and innocence. I love the richness banked poinsettias bring to a room, and the sudden surprise of Christmas cactus deciding to bloom. I love winding lights around the tree, carefully, precisely as a surgeon – each color perfectly distributed with no clumps of red, yellow or blue to draw the eye and distract from the tree as a whole. I love looking across the water toward the glimmer of decorated trees in distant yards, their reflections clarifying into pools of light as the wind lays, and the nightbird carols begin.
I especially love the rehearsal of life trimming my own tree represents. Ornament by ornament, I recall the years. There is the sailboat, with its cobweb of lines and cutaway forefoot, staysail, jib and main flying free. There are the rocks with the mysterious holes, baby, rain-worn limestones whose parents still hang from cedar and oak limbs in the most perfect of Hill Country valleys. There is the German glass squirrel, my first gift from my squirrel-pet, and the tiny, perfect lightning whelk from Brazos Santiago.
The gourd-turned-ornament from Dahomey, intricately burned and still smelling of its source, lies next to the inch-high icon from Salisbury Cathedral, and the tiny aluminum bells from my childhood. There is the stuffed bear, the multitude of Texas shells and stars, the folk-art angel, the sequined jalapeno and my dear prairie dog’s toy. It is my life, hanging from a tree. For its season, it reminds me of what has been, and how much is yet to come.
Despite my enjoyment, I’m clearly out of sync with the world’s calendar when it comes to Christmas. For most of the world, the “Christmas season” lies between Thanksgiving Day and December 25. Cities turn on their holiday lights as soon after Thanksgiving as possible. Carols wash through the stores like an implacable tide and marathon showings of “A Christmas Story” begin ever earlier. Cards are sent, gifts are wrapped and travel plans made. As time passes, everyone begins to count down the days: 20 shopping days until Christmas… 19… 18… 17…
As the time for preparation shortens, activity levels increase to a near-frenzy until, at last, December 25 arrives. Families gather, communities worship, gifts are exchanged and then, on December 26, Christmas is over. Decorations come down, ribbons are saved, torn wrapping paper is thrown out and the world gets on with its business. Celebration-weary shoppers hit the malls again for sales or exchanges, trees are tossed, and boxes of oranaments are sent back to the attic to gather dust until the cycle begins again.
The church experiences things rather differently. In the liturgical calendar, the Feast of the Nativity begins the Christmas season. It stretches for 12 long days, until The Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Long after families have eaten the last of the left-overs, waved good-bye to relatives and begun to fuss over the bills that are piling up, the Church still celebrates, waiting for three Kings to arrive with their own parcels and packages, following their own star and celebrating in their own way.
Like Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas belong together. I delight in Christmas, the season of light, but I love Advent. Embracing the solstice darkness, it empties itself like an upturned heart and turns waiting into an art. It tells us that the future we predict and plan for is not necesarily the future we will get. It gives us permission to anticipate the utterly unpredictable and utterly unexpected with confidence and joy, and it teaches patience, the companion of wisdom.
Because I delight in Christmas, I celebrate Christmas. But I love Advent, and so I keep Advent. I treasure each day and especially each night of it ~ the silence and song, the darkness and light spreading from one glowing lamp to another. What will Christmas bring? I have no idea. My preparations don’t include plans for this, or that. They simply acknowledge the great truth of the season. What we most need, as individuals as and communities, is always granted as a gift. It is that gift for which we wait.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So shall darkness be light, and the stillness the dancing.
T.S. Eliot, East Coker