When our boys were young, the countdown to Christmas involved a festive green cloth calendar with pockets, one for each of 25 days until Christmas. A tiny grey mouse was moved from one pocket to the next as he made his way through the weeks leading up to our sons’ favorite holiday. Each day, a different boy took a turn at jumping the mouse into the new day’s pocket and announcing the countdown.
The older boys understood the progression of time and the build-up of excitement that was behind our family Advent calendar, but it was a hard concept for the two littlest ones to grasp. One morning, with the calendar clearly showing Christmas was still days away, the three-year-old took it upon himself to give the mouse extra jumps. When caught in the act, he turned to his brothers and happily declared “It’s Christmas!”
Sometimes, we grown-ups want to rush the season. Quoting the Angela Lansbury/Johnny Mathis tune, “We need a little Christmas right this very minute. Candles in the window. Carols at the spinet.”
Given the uncertainty, confusion and fear in America today, it’s no surprise this year’s rush to Christmas appears almost frantic. I’m not referring to Christmas decorations that appeared alongside Halloween masks or holiday music playing in the background at Wal-Mart while we shopped for Thanksgiving food. That consumer-driven reality has been with us for several years. What’s different is that people of all faith traditions (and without them) are speaking with nostalgia and great anticipation about the coming of Christmas.
I feel it myself. I sense a deep need to step into something solid, into a season grounded in words and promises I can trust. But my heart’s leaning is not toward December 25. My anticipation has been centered on the anticipation. On Advent — “the coming”.
In America, Advent begins on the Sunday after our traditional Thanksgiving, the fourth Sunday before Christmas. If we are true to it’s intent, at Thanksgiving we’ve given thanks to God — “eucharisteo” — and there has been the breaking of bread with others — “koinonia”.
Stepping into Advent after we’ve given thanks and shared fellowship prepares us to receive the perfect gift of Christ. The liturgical calendar cycles through a rhythm of seasons.
“Advent to prepare for Christ’s coming, Epiphany to remember the Light, Lent to confess our resistance to the Light, Holy Week to remember Christ’s suffering, Easter to celebrate the resurrection’s power, the birthday of the church at Pentacost, and Ordinary Time to bring us back to the beginning again.” (quoted from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)
The Greek word for liturgy means “the work of the people”. Advent, then, is as much a time of work as a time of waiting. Our Advent work goes beyond decorating the house, baking cookies, putting up lights, installing the tree. Though all can be a life-giving aspect of the season. might we also choose actions that draw us near to the One we await, who is waiting for us.
Amidst the feasting, decorating and celebrating, there can be times for fasting, prayer and readings that set the pace for the slow walk toward Christ.
An Advent wreath, akin to the Advent calendar we hung on our wall for our children, is an intentional measuring of the journey toward receiving the gift of Jesus. Each Sunday, as we light the candle for that week, we step closer to Christ. In our practices throughout the week, we move into His presence by laying hands on His Word.
There is more. In this season of waiting and giving, could there not also be giving of “self? We can break through the distractions of the Christmas season and bring focus to the Advent with acts of kindness. The gift of “self” will look different for each of us — a meal for a neighbor, volunteering at a shelter, cookies dropped off at a nursing home, prayers with a friend in need, strangers around our dinner table..
In waiting, choose one gift of “self” for each candle lit during advent. One sometimes painful, terrifying, humbling gift. One action each week, perhaps even more as the gift of Jesus draws near.
As we actively wait for the coming of Christ, we’re aware that our celebration centers on the truth — that He has already come.
“We are forever seeking, while the forever for which we seek is now. Awaken to the truth that any place contains every place and every moment contains eternity. Seekers and searchers of all times have looked toward the heavens in order to find God. Then the gift was given.” (Richard John Neuhaus in “God With Us”)
Christ came, Christ comes, Christ will come again.
The mouse is already sitting in the December 25 pocket. Jesus is here. It’s Christmas.