I got Advent wrong. For what purpose is it? And Why I need it!

It is fun planting flowers in the flushing life of Spring.  Even the air itself holds life in such potency that it evokes a reaction in some with higher sensitivities. A comforting, growing warmth invites us to shed the protectiveness we’ve become comfortable with; to trade sheltering confines for a world of exploration.  

After planning with eager anticipation, cultivating dirt that exudes the smell of rich humous stirs our creative energies. Plants around us glide from drab browns to an expanding tinge of green, as if its creator was advancing a slider on a screen.

Pressed by a sense of urgency as the flush spreads, we rush to procure seedlings and plants before nature, in its time-proven pace, flips the next page of the calendar. And gratification is usually not long in coming.  Our work shows almost immediate results as it soon joins in the chorus surrounding it.  I can smell Spring, even now. And the season’s rewards, succulent tastes, mesmerizing artistry, or delectable fragrances are soon to follow.

But what of the fall and winter? What of the season when the creator’s finger slowly urges the slider back toward stark bareness, drab and cold, nudging us again into our protective confines? When the leaves and dying stalks of the delights of the year are disposed; when the watering can is covered with frost and a thin layer of ice crackles within; why place anything new in the soil then?

While the surrounding community enters the rhythms of celebrating harvests and family gatherings paced by the changing of life outdoors, what embers flame in the hearts of the one who follows a parallel path? This one quietly inserts bulbs, knowing the cooling soil will soon be hard with frost, covered by snow, silently waiting out the cold blasts flowing over it. Why?  Why not wait until the flush of Spring.

Inserting bulbs in the fall stirs different senses than does planting seedlings in the spring.  I pondered this throughout this fall.  The first response to surface is that the gardener has vision for the spring, nuanced with eagerness, anticipation, and hope that cannot wait.  True, this first motivated me to plant bulbs this fall. However, the current harvests reasonably guarantee the flourish of seeds and plants for those who wait for spring. But like the outer skin of the bulbs in my hands, this answer seemed only the surface layer.  I sensed more layers waiting to be explored.  

Probing further, my thoughts have centered on the needs and qualities of the bulbs themselves, rather than the motivations of the gardener. These varieties of  bulbs need time to grow roots to create connections for channeling the nutrients that will support the explosion of growth to come.  They need time to rest before again exerting the creative forces necessary to nurture growth and flowers that far exceed their present selves. Within bounds, they thrive amidst the starkness and dark of winter.  They seek the nourishment available in the place they are placed.  They will offer a unique beauty in the right season.  If they didn’t have this time to thrive, they would not be prepared to enter the rush of spring. “But when the sun came up, they were scorched, and because they did not have sufficient root, they withered.” 

I know that if I wait until it is warm enough to work soil in spring to plant them, it will be too late.  There has not been sufficient time to dwell in the darkness and cold, building the resources to fully participate in the exploding flourish of spring.  

This is me.  I have discovered this more clearly in recent years.  As the holidays approach, my mind and my senses begin filling with more than it seems I can sometimes hold. Cherishing sentimental memories; grieving change and loss; noting a heightened awareness of spiritual yearning; evaluating the previous season (“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?  Another year over, a new one just begun . . .”). The blessing of having spent a year in Bethlehem, among friends, further expands the space my mind and spirit need to hold all these things as songs and verses speaking of Bethlehem reappear.

I have processed this throughout the fall, but could not distill my thoughts into any coherent direction.  Like a light breaking through clouds, I realized recently, “This is what Advent means to me!”

I grew up in a church culture that had an informal liturgy that was aware of certain seasons in traditional church liturgy, but engaged with them more in structure than in content.  I recall words like “darkness,” “hope,” and “light” being part of the Sunday readings.  However, experientially, the first Sunday of Advent seemed like the opening of the gates on a race course.  Previously, excitement about Christmas was held in check to ensure that one properly cultivated and expressed a spirit of gratitude at Thanksgiving.  But with Advent, it was like the release of an anticipatory frenzy of gatherings, shopping, decorations, planning dates, lovely music and concerts, all jockeying for its space in the calendar.  

Christmas was the finish line.  The celebration culminated.  The stands emptied silently as the final horses left the course.  Drying Christmas trees appeared at the curb.  Lights began coming down, although some remained as minds turned to the next celebration, New Year, when we could party once more among friends and family before settling into the bleakness of a long winter. Truth be told, I usually struggled with a deep letdown after New Year. December passed all too fast. 

It was during my time in Bethlehem that I began a journey of understanding my need for Advent.  I walked to Manger Square frequently to spend time praying in the Church of the Nativity—even more so in Advent.  I discovered a more traditional observance of liturgical Advent.  It was a time of reflecting on darkness. A notable minor key, so to speak, in the music and atmosphere.  Curiously, I also found an intense tension there, that sometimes crackled into angry confrontations or loud words.  A Jesuit  acquaintance, who happened to be serving a sabbatical in Nativity Church, helped me understand. “Advent is a liturgical season intended to create space for us to hold darkness and reflection,” He stated.  That was a new perspective for me.  “It is a time of reflecting on the brokenness and darkness, thus preparing our hearts for the entrance of the Light of God into the world at Christmas. While our Jesuit community yearns to hold this space for reflection and preparation, we do so in a world-renown historical building.  The beginning of Advent hearkens the rush of tourists from around the world to see the place tradition holds to be the birthplace of Jesus.  We are curators of this place, accommodating this rush of celebrating guests, while trying to hold space for Advent. This is the source of tension.” I get it! That sums up my common experience of the Christmas season. His account also didn’t factor in the tension created by the three differing dates on which the varying traditions sharing the space celebrate Christmas.

It was a planting of a seed in me, which has grown into fuller understanding in the years since.  Advent is a time of reflection.  A space for me to hold the aching awareness of the darkness, the brokenness in my community, in my world, in my year. It is also a space of introspection. Not only is the darkness around me, not only does it influence me, but I, in some cases aware and in others unaware, participate in it.  I contribute to it.  I cause anger; I cause pain and offense; I contribute to injustice; I contribute to the destruction of creation. I groan along with creation, along with the spirits of the broken and oppressed.  I am eager for the redemption of this world.

It is in Advent that I am intentional about opening my mind and my spirit to the work that God wishes to do in me; the renewed work he wishes to do through me.  It is in this way that God prepares my spirit for the celebration of Christmas, as the time of winter prepares the bulbs for the springing forth of Spring.

I now understand that Christmas day is not the final day, the culmination of Advent.  It s the beginning of the feast or celebration of Christmas.  This was one of the most delightful aspects of my experience of Christmas in Bethlehem and Nativity Church.  The Christmas celebration of Western traditions begins Dec 25. It is a 12 day feast. The feast of Eastern traditions begins January 6.  The celebration of the smaller minority of Armenian churches began January 20.  The town celebrated all three with great festivity.  “Eid Milad Saeed!” (Happy Feast of the Birth) was a greeting one exchanged for weeks.  

I need Advent.  I need the space to hold the darkness and reflect on it. How does God guide me to grieve for the brokenness of our world?  For the pain of this past year? For the strife, violence, poverty, pain, and seeming hopelessness of situations.  What awareness does God prompt in me of my own participation in this.  In what ways does the Spirit of God move me to groan with him in the aching need for change? For growth? 

But what glimpses of hope does God also bring to me?  Christmas means that Jesus, God-In-Flesh as I understand him, entered this darkness with us. How do I experience his presence in my world? It is with this aspect of Advent reflection that I find Christmas music helpful throughout Advent.

And then comes Christmas! I am eager for it. I need more than one day for celebration of the greatness of the coming of God’s Light to earth, the entry of his kingdom, the beginning of his redemption of our world.  I experience great gratitude for many wonderful memories. My celebration begins on Christmas Day.  I attempt to carry that spirit of celebration through the days ahead, although the molds of this world guide me to turn my thoughts back to my work.  It is this holiday rhythm of holding space for reflection on brokenness and space for celebration that I have come to embrace.  What does your space look like?

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