Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”
John Milton (1608-1674)  “On His Blindness”

In the Catholic Church, the season of Advent is a time of reflection and preparation leading to Christmas. It is, as Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D writes, “a season of hope and of longing…”

As with Christmas, Advent is associated with a variety of symbols and traditions, such as the use of an Advent Wreath composed of evergreen branches and four candles—three purple and one pink—which are lit each night, one purple candle per week with the pink candle used during the final week before Christmas; liturgical music; cultural traditions like Los Posadas; and my favorite, the Advent Calendar.

When I was a child, my mother taped an Advent Calendar to our bedroom windows. The calendar was usually a Christmas scene, like the infant Christ in his manger-cradle surrounded by shepherds, farm animals, and his parents. Embedded in the picture were tiny doors with a number on them corresponding to the December calendar. Each morning, we opened a door for that day. Behind the door was a quote or biblical phrase illuminated by a piece of stained glass wax paper. The sunlight shining through the miniature window would light the phrase. We found the opening each morning of a new window to be the highlight of the days leading up to Christmas. However, the best Advent Calendar I remember was one that had candy behind each door. Stained glass wax paper is beautiful, but chocolate is better.

The season of Advent is about waiting. We are waiting for Christmas, for the Messiah, and of course, for our presents. As I have grown older, the season of expectation reminds me of how we wait for what is to come in our lives. I couple Advent with not only Christmas, but the New Year’s celebration on December 31st. What will the New Year bring?

Advent is a time to reflect on what has happened, the journeys we have traveled, the steps we have left to complete. I find it a time for making amends, drafting plans and resolutions, considering new roads in the New Year. Actually, the first Sunday of Advent is the New Year celebration in the Church, so the secular and the religious are not far apart.

The word “advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” To quote Father Just, this arrival could mean “something so important that it radically [changes] the whole culture.” He also explains the Latin roots of the word: “adventus (‘arrival, approach’), made up of the preposition ad- (‘to, towards’), the verbal root ven- (from venire, ‘to come’), and the suffix -itus (indicating verbal action).”

During Advent is the Feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6th (tomorrow, actually). On this day, old St. Nick brings gifts for children, one of the origins of the Santa Claus story. My parents would place our Christmas stockings out and St. Nick would fill them with candy, small gifts, and fruit, a sort of precursor to Christmas Day. If we were bad (never!), St. Nick would leave coal in our shoes. I do not know why the stockings were preferred over shoes, and I never got any coal. Good thing, because in my natural gas heated home, I would not know what to do with it.

I am thinking these days about waiting, about expectations, about hopes and dreams. In the persistence of memory, I used to lie awake and dream childish fantasies about the toys under the tree. I cared very little about reflection or making amends.

I rarely dream of presents anymore.

As a middle-aged adult, I think now about home, about what is lost, about friendship, and love. I know that in the year to come, I will have to live with less. Material goods will be less important than the spiritual. We will still be involved in a questionable, spiritually-draining war. People will hate one another because of skin color, or religious beliefs, or simply because we are different. There will be misunderstandings, random violence, and unanswered questions. People will behave in a way that defies logic, and denotes a lack of respect for others. We will continue to hate and abuse and destroy.

But I hope, against all evidence to the contrary, that this year will be different. I prepare for the worst while having faith that the best is yet to come. As much as I suffer to see depression, emptiness, lack of soul, depletion of wit, ignorance made easy, I believe in the human spirit because I have seen it in the eyes of others:

The young, vitally strong woman I helped last week prepare her scholarship essay about being struck down with leukemia this year. She is back, and she is alive and ready to fight on.

Another young man who is finishing his education in medicine so he can enlist in the military and treat soldiers overseas as a nurse. When asked if he was scared, he said yes, but to serve is what he is called to do.

The summer night on the boulevard when I saw more than a hundred homeless people standing around in abject silence, heads hanging, defeated? Why were so many gathered? Then I saw twenty or thirty volunteers coming down the street, each carrying foil containers, tables, grocery bags. They set up a station and began doling out hot food and beverages to the lost ones. Suddenly, people were talking together, laughing. Someone put out a boom box for music. The downtrodden and their saviors mixed together, laughing, commiserating, sharing, even embracing. They fed everyone on the street, no questions asked, and then they melted like ghosts into the night leaving an empty street.

In this season of waiting, I refuse to give up on the human spirit. I decline to ignore the growing evidence that all things are intertwined, connected. I simply cannot, cannot give up hope. There are dark days ahead where we will make tough choices about what we believe, what is important, and where we stand. We will have to fight wars and battles. People will single us out for ridicule, for suffering. There will be days when we will be tempted to wish we had never been born.

But there will be other days, ones where we will see the birth of a child, two people in love, and friends growing old together. We will see souls reach out to comfort each other in the hour of need, we will hear voices crying and other voices offering solace, there will be companions for those walking alone through this valley of tears. People will swear allegiance to art and truth and beauty.

We will defy the odds.

We will win.

This Advent, those are the days for which I wait. I hope and pray and dream, that somehow grief will leave us alone for a while, that we will find salvation, that we will be reunited with the ones we love. No need to be rich or powerful or feared. Peace and love, that is all we need.

I hope. And I wait.


2 comments:

Woman in a Window said...

I prepare for the worst while having faith that the best is yet to come.

People will swear allegiance to art and truth and beauty.

Me too, Paul. Me too.

And thank you so much for the background on the Advent. I'll use this as a time of work in the way that I need to give thanks for what I have.

I laugh at you making the distinction between the wax paper and the chocolate. I was almost hoping that you'd have chosen the beautiful light, ah, but then you were a child. I'm afraid even now I would eat the chocolate. I know my children would. This morning I was in the tub and my son tore in. He said, hey, Day 5 is empty. I said, yes, son, that is because I am in the tub. I haven't gone downstairs to fill our advent calendar yet. I suppose he is already learning to hope and wait:)

xo
erin

Paul L. Martin said...

It took quite some time and maturity to get to the allegiance to art and truth and beauty. For many years, I was hopelessly devoted to chocolate. As you say, even now it is a tough choice.

Thanks for writing, Erin, and your wonderful words of comfort both in the comments and on your blog.

Take care.