Most of us aspire to lofty ideals during Advent:
“O, Lord, I anxiously await your coming and offer all that I am and all that I do for love of You, looking forward with all my heart to uniting myself to You in the celebration of your Incarnation.”
But often we fall somewhere between the ideal and the overwrought, overstressed, if not practical sentiment:
“Lord, could you just hurry up and come already, so we can get back to a regular routine?!”
And yet, who can blame us? Many of us already feel like we’re drowning, barely afloat amidst the trials, tribulations and regulations of every-day family life – getting little Joey to piano, Susie to violin, Harvard to debate practice and – in our case – homeschooling from morning till night, along with meal planning, grocery shopping, housekeeping and more. Then – every year around this time – here comes a great millstone of joy around our necks – otherwise known as Christmas lights strung from here to high heaven, perfectly appointed trees and wall to wall decor, shopping, hospitality, parties, family pictures, cards and letters, never-ending trips to the post office, planning, budgeting, charitable giving, baking and traveling. (Sometimes don’t you just want to curl up in your empty manger and hide from all the demands of boxes, bows and bounty until it’s all over?)
And after all the material traditions are said and done, we’re supposed to do what? Advent wreath? Candles? Special attention to Sacraments? Added Prayer? Sacrifice?
Sadly, despite our best intentions, by the inherent force of their nature, the material obligations of the season often push the more spiritual Advent activities aside. To the point where we look back around Gaudete Sunday and realize that all those candles and Jesse tree ornaments, prayers, extra Masses, rosaries and reflections have been lost along the road of good intentions, somehow caught up and blown away in the wind before we even realized they were gone.
At least that’s what happened to our family this year. And from the looks of all the beautiful houses and the over-the-top parties and show-stopping hospitality – where every dessert is perfection and the air is filled with the scent of pine needles and cranberries – I’m probably not the only one.
It seems that Advent has ceased to be about, well, ADVENT. Yes, it’s still about getting ready for Christmas.But it’s not about getting ready for Christmas. There is no time of year when the contrast between how we look on the outside and how prepared we are on the inside can feel more stark. Sometimes, with all the joy surrounding the exterior, the lack of attention I’ve paid to my interior life is that much more highlighted for me. I begin to wonder if I’m not one of those “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead man’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27-28). Maybe it’s not that bad; but often it comes pretty close.
This is particularly the time when we should shed all the excess and train our eyes on heaven. On the things that really matter. Instead, every year the celebrations get earlier and earlier; the bar gets higher and higher; the obligations pile on and on.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Unlike Lent, which lends itself to reflection and sacrifice, coming as it does before Spring and at the end of the long, drawn out quiet of winter, Advent is often glossed over by all the demands of the season.
What is the solution? And when I say “solution” I mean “practical solution.” Because chances are, all the obligations are not going to go away. Sure, we can disband everything that is not necessary; but for most of us, many of these traditions are here to stay. Try as we might, we’re still going to have decorations, get-togethers with extended family and friends, family pictures, Christmas cards, shopping and the like.
Yet, Christ is still calling. Whether we listen or not.
In our home, we have always had two Advent traditions. Every morning we read the stories of salvation history and place our special Jesse Tree ornaments on the Tree. Every evening we light a candle on the Advent wreath and read from one of Arnold Ytreeide’s Advent books.
But not this year.
Somehow what we used to think were crazy Christmas schedules for us as a family have multiplied into several crazy Christmas schedules – one for the family, and separate ones for each of our three teens, who all have their own Christmas obligations, whether through school, work, youth groups, or other affiliation. With everyone running around we’ve not been able to schedule “family time” for much of anything. In fact, this year I hadn’t even found our Jesse Tree ornaments until a few days ago. And that was only because I’d had a huge awakening.
On Gaudete Sunday, it occurred to me that Advent is half over. I was shocked to realize that through the first two weeks of Advent, we had yet to light a single candle. My youngest children have had no reference to Advent other than the pink and purple candles sitting front and center in Church, or the words we speak at prayer time or during open discussions around the table. Other than random moments, there has been no effort – organized anyway – to help them prepare their hearts and minds for Christ.
It actually hit me that perhaps we should just give it up this year. Why not just get ready for Christmas and give Advent another try next year? I mean, what else can we do when the demands of the world won’t STOP?
But something about that idea just didn’t feel right. After all, what is all this “stuff” for, anyway? If we give up, aren’t we just releasing the most important if least demanding Person of the season? The One quietly waiting to gain our attention? Can I actually look myself in the mirror if my solution to the busyness of the season is just to put away the Advent candles and save my prayers for less demanding times?
No, I can’t.
So I looked at the calendar. Realizing we still had ten days left, tonight, we took action.
My husband pulled out the wreath and the kids lit the candles. One teen was at work; another was somewhere studying for a test. But four kids sat around the table and gazed at the three candles flickering before them.
Tonight, we spent time reflecting on the story of salvation history. We talked about the creation and the fall; We read about how Christ represents the Second Adam. How Mary is the new Eve. In brief passages, we read about God’s covenant with Noah; with Abraham. We placed our Jesse tree ornaments on the Christmas tree. Not the second tree we normally put in the classroom, but the family tree. And we didn’t read the Advent book we normally read; we focused on the story of salvation. In other words, we changed things up a bit in the interest of time. But that’s OK.
We gathered. And we read together. And those teens who weren’t around? They noticed the Advent wreath on the table when they returned. They may not have been a part of the conversation, but they remained part of the tradition. The reminder brought back all the years they had sat around the Advent wreath. They noticed.
For the next ten days, our family may not STOP. But we are going to PAUSE. If not twice a day, at least once. We’ve found the wreath; we’ve found the ornaments. We’ve made time for the sacrament of Confession. We are moving forward.
Our Advent may be brief. It may not be perfect. It may be missing some piece that would be “just the thing.” But it will be Advent nonetheless.
It will be a PAUSE.
And that PAUSE will matter.
Because that PAUSE will allow us to put all the other “stuff” into perspective. Rather than wait for the “perfect” opportunity to pull out the Advent wreath or the Jesse tree ornaments, we will schedule time each day – the same time. No matter that one family member is at work or another out with friends. Anyone home will be invited to participate. But if we wait for everyone to be ready, we’ll never be ready. If we wait for all the stars to align and the the time to be right, they will never be right.
We’ve lit our candles. And we plan to keep lighting them. Until the moment comes when we get to meet the bridegroom (Matt. 25:1).
The Advent that almost wasn’t…is here.