Tsh OxenreiderDecember 11, 2020
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I did not grow up recognizing Advent as a thing. I knew it mostly as an adjective for certain Christmasy items I saw only in December—the Advent wreath up front at my evangelical nondenominational church, Advent calendars with mediocre chocolate at the grocery stores. To me, it simply meant “countdown” in Latin.

I was somewhat right. The Latin etymology of advent comes from “arrival,” the idea of waiting for something or someone to show up. Obviously, the arrival we count down to is the birth, and therefore incarnation, of Christ. But it was well into my adulthood when I connected the dots between this vague, global season dictated by the higher-ups of the church and my own life.

My kids were 7 years old, 4 and 1, and I craved some sort of structure to mark time in those chaotic early days of parenting, especially during the holidays. I loved Christmas, but I could not yet figure out how to be that mom who baked neighborhood-famous cookies or helped the kids build gingerbread houses without losing my mind, all while still juggling my work as a writer.

Armed with sticky notes and clothespins, I created a countdown calendar: 24 days that, when flipped over, revealed an activity of the day—this way, the kids knew we would do something fun together but I’d find the breathing room to pace ourselves through December. Make paper snowflakes, make a snowman in the backyard, watch Rudolph, go to the town Christmas parade.

This countdown calendar worked until about December 12th, when I would raise the white flag: I had already burned out on holiday merriment. Every morning the kids fought over who got to flip the card while I sipped my coffee and prayed that me from two weeks ago marked “watch a holiday movie” for today. The entire enterprise drained my energy.

I tried this method for several years because I still wanted some sort of structure to our holidays. But it ultimately failed by mid-month every year because it served the opposite purpose of true Adventide: It became my taskmaster, the endeavor that sucked any lingering joy from my countenance and left me bone-weary on the 25th, wondering how soon until we could take down our tree and move on with life without being labeled a Scrooge.

It was several years later when I discovered the full liturgical calendar and how Advent nestled perfectly within those four weeks leading to the first day of Christmastide, beginning a new year of walking through the life of Christ. By embracing the structure for marking time that had been in place for centuries—that after four weeks of Advent followed 12 full days of Christmas—I felt the full exhale of the pressure-valve release that was so counterculture to the mainstream culture’s approach to the holidays.

The liturgical calendar is a gift, not a ritualistic to-do list enlisted to prove the Christian’s mettle.

The liturgical calendar is a gift, not a ritualistic to-do list enlisted to prove the Christian’s mettle. We already mark our time in other ways: baseball season for the fan and player, sowing and harvest time for the farmer and grocer, fall and spring semesters for the student and teacher. The church gave us this gift to align our internal clocks with the rhythms of Jesus, to unify and course-correct how we walk in the world.

It can double-down as a gift when we also participate with the calendar in our domestic churches, and not just in our local parishes. By leaning into Advent’s posture of anticipation, we invite our minds, bodies, spirits and homes to join in the eager waiting of all the saints. And 2020, more than most years, embodies Advent’s mandatory stance of fidgety patience, the longing for a reason to finally celebrate.

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In Advent, we remember what it must have been like to wait for the Messiah’s arrival, to wonder if God remembered the promise given for salvation. We also recognize the present-day already/not-yetness of the world, when we still wait for Christ to one day make all things new. Advent asks us to remember daily that what we see around us is not all there is; just as a child waits for Christmas with so much impatient longing she can hardly stand it, we wait with longing for redemption and justice. We wait in the shadows for light.

The year 2020 is undoubtedly a season of waiting, of a daily remembrance that one day, hopefully, we will wake up and walk out of the current shadows. Without hyperbole, 2020 is a year of Advent.

Our souls and bodies would benefit from a recognition of Adventide in our domestic churches.

Because we are all decidedly planted at home this Advent season, our souls and bodies would benefit from a recognition of Adventide in our domestic churches. Here are a few ways my family, now full of teens and tweens, is waiting for the redemption of Christmastide, pandemic or not.

1. We pace ourselves.

We may no longer flip over sticky notes, but we still spread out the goodness so that late December is not a season of burnout. We have yet to watch our favorites this season—“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “Elf,” “A Christmas Carol”— because we’ve still got through Jan. 5, the 12th night of Christmas, to do so. Ella Fitzgerald has indeed already crooned about Frosty the Snowman in our kitchen, but we are doing our best to mostly play more Advent-centric music.

Our Christmas tree has some of its decor, but we are not done and probably won’t be until the last week of Advent. We will wait to make gingerbread houses until sometime after December 25. This is not because we’re in the business of making things harder or because we are liturgical calendar purists, it is simply because we want to enjoy it all, and we have got the time to do so.

2. We simplify our daily, quotidian liturgies.

Our meals are simple, and even provincial during Advent—think beans, soups, vegetables from the garden, Instant Pot. While not officially a penitential season, Advent’s essence of expectancy demands reflection and contemplation, a penitential posture of preparation for eventual revelry. The cookies are coming, and a simplified few weeks of Advent enhance their flavor.

Advent couldn’t be more relevant this year. Let’s invite it into our homes, since we’ll all be there.

We keep up with regular, steady study and work times (since we are all at home), bedtimes and chores, even when we are hankering for celebration. We’ll still sip hot chocolate and applaud the mayor flipping the light switch on all the trees in our small town’s square during the Christmas festival in early December (during non-pandemic years, naturally), but within our four walls, we keep it decidedly Advent-ish. The feast days aren’t quite here yet.

In the evenings, we light our purple or pink candles, read from the Psalms, listen to an Advent-themed song, and look at art old and new. We’ll ask a question, such as “Where did you see God today?” and we’ll end with prayer for deep sleep and protection through the night. The kids are older so we can do this collectively without losing our minds, but when they were a few years younger, my husband and I reflected together after they were tucked into bed.

3. We eagerly await a full-on 12 days of Christmastide.

None of us may be going beyond our backyards for the holidays in 2020, but that does not mean Christmas is a bust. This year, like most years, we are planning on movie marathons, goofy games, cocktails for the adults, sugar on sugar for the kids and neighborhood drives in our pajamas to look at the lights. We may not be able to visit extended family or fully participate in our traditional cookie swap with friends this year, but we’ll still feast within the four walls of our domestic church.

The slow intentionality of Advent makes way for 12 days of Christmas as a perfect, dovetailed juxtaposition found only in the best stories. Choosing to participate at home, even when things are not ideal, invites us to engage in the best story that we are all still reading: Just as the people of God waited in real time for Emmanuel, God with us, we are still waiting for the earth’s full renewal.

Advent couldn’t be more relevant this year. Let’s invite it into our homes, since we’ll all be there.

More from America:

– Read: Pope Francis on the intimacy and grace of prayer
The Supreme Court ruled you have the right to worship in person. That doesn’t mean you should.
– A Coronavirus Prayer for this Weary Winter
– Waiting for a Covid test is more than just standing in line. It’s an act of mercy.

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