Magazine article The Christian Century

Season of Longing: Why I Need Advent

Magazine article The Christian Century

Season of Longing: Why I Need Advent

Article excerpt

ON SPIRITUAL retreats I often hear people say they love Advent more than Christmas. This does not surprise me, since Christians tend to set apart this season to grow, strengthen and explore the boundaries of the soul.

But I wonder--has the Christian culture lost Advent? Advent's call to simplicity, poverty of spirit, and conversion makes Christmas wondrous and, finally, comprehensible. But is the problem as simple as putting up the tree too soon?

I know I'm a curmudgeon about this. When I was a child, no one in our neighborhood put up a tree before Christmas Eve. Childhood anticipation is Christmas's greatest gift. And there was time! Time to mature in years and in spirit. My parents rejected religion, but they created an atmosphere that allowed their children to enjoy it.

For one thing, there was an Advent calendar, a map of the Holy Land, where Mary and Joseph and the donkey traveled from place to place throughout December. Little cardboard doors opened in the Mediterranean Sea, in the rocks, mountains and sky and along the ponderous road. Along the way we met Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph in his many-colored coat, as well as characters along the couple's journey toward Bethlehem: Herod appearing on a castle balcony, the shepherds abiding in the fields, angels popping up over the rocky plain, the faraway magi alerted to the star. A door of one house opens to the Annunciation, another to the Visitation. The back side of each little door offered a line of scripture, referencing the action taking place inside the picture or a verse from Isaiah--the lion lying down with the lamb, the promise of no more war, the eyes of the blind being opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped. The last and largest door revealed the cave in Bethlehem with Mary holding the baby and Joseph leaning protectively over them. Christmas!

A well-meaning relative gave us a chocolate Advent calendar. We enjoyed the chocolate--but it felt, well, wrong somehow.

Some families baked. We sang, banging out hymns at our level of proficiency. We sang the heart out of "O Come O Come Emmanuel," garbled at first like any nonsense rhyme. But as we matured the verses opened like the Isaiah doors of the Advent calendar--begging for justice, freedom and the knowledge to trust in "thy mighty power to save and give us victory o'er the grave." These words awakened in me a hope proportional to my growing awareness of worries about the world outside the tenuous safety of childhood. We sang more softly then, like a prayer, "Bind in one the hearts of all mankind. …

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