This year, I have the chance to make Advent the peaceful season I’ve always wanted it to be.
I first noticed them on an unseasonably warm November evening: Christmas lights, strung around the bushes that surround the main administration building of my campus. “C’mon,” I muttered under my mask. “It’s not even Thanksgiving.” This kind of complaint is as familiar as it is impotent. Christmas arrives too soon. The lights get hung too early. The music gets played too often. The cheeriness is relentless. If there is really a war on Christmas, the perpetrators seem to be losing.
Despite my grumblings, I do enjoy this time of year, especially since I’ve had children. My family has developed our own little Christmas traditions—some original, others inherited—and we follow them pretty scrupulously. Every year, we buy the tree at the parking lot of our favorite local frozen custard stand. We trim it with a pot of chili on the stove, carols playing from one of our phones. We tack up two Advent calendars, one for each of our girls, and we light the wreath before every evening meal. The small artificial fir that my wife and I got when we were first married goes into our girls’ room, complete with its own lights and junior plastic nativity set. We don’t go too crazy; the house doesn’t end up looking like Santa’s workshop, but it doesn’t look like Scrooge and Marley’s, either. As the day approaches, we watch the classics: Peanuts, Frosty and the Grinch (the Boris Karloff original, and no other). Presents are opened on Christmas morning, and then it’s off to 10 a.m. Mass. This is Christmas done in the “right” way, on the “right” schedule.
Yet despite my early onset curmudgeon-hood, I realize that I have no basis to call our way right and some other way wrong. “It’s tradition,” I say, even though the traditions I’m invoking aren’t really all that old. But when the lights are strung ahead of Thanksgiving, I feel like some kind of Yuletide non-aggression pact has been violated, and for reasons I’m not sure I can articulate, I have to ramp up in response.
With the approach of every Advent, I promise myself that I will find time to pray and reflect on what we’re actually waiting for. I resolve to do less, even if it means that my wife and I fail to curate the “perfect” Christmas for our children.
In the last couple years, my wife and I have developed another annual tradition: the point at which we look at each other and wonder how we lost control of this Christmas yet again. We usually ponder this question when, long after midnight, we’re cross-eyed from affixing stickers to a doll house. Didn’t we say we’d pare back a bit? Slow down a little? And yet here we sit again, overwhelmed by the holiday frenzy.
Another emerging tradition for us is our pastor’s annual sermon reminding us that, contrary to popular opinion, Advent does not equal Christmas. As he explains, gently but firmly, most of what we carelessly call “the Christmas season” does not even start until the day for which it is named, a piece of information that, as a cradle Catholic with 12 years of Catholic education, I feel I already should have known. He tells us that patient anticipation offers its own spiritual gifts. (And the parish does encourage patience: At our church the Advent wreath is the only indication of the season; the tree and the lights and the creche do not appear until Christmas Eve.) In the meantime, he suggests, try to slow down a bit.
This is the wise counsel I struggle to heed every year, despite my best intentions. With the approach of every Advent, I promise myself that I will find time to pray and reflect on what we’re actually waiting for. I resolve to do less, even if it means that my wife and I fail to curate the “perfect” Christmas for our children.
This year, however, these resolutions might be easier. With the expected second wave of Covid-19 upon us, there may not be much of a traditional Christmas frenzy to resist. No parties. No crowded malls. Even exchanging cookies is probably a bad idea. In other words, we actually might have the Advent that we keep trying to have.
I suspect that the greatest threat to my spiritual life is the belief that I am in charge of it, that it depends on what I arrange rather than what I receive.
But the truth is that I’m not sure I can take it. At this point, a liturgical season of waiting does not seem like a reprieve so much as further cruelty. I feel like I’m already doing quite enough waiting. I’m waiting for the resentment and recrimination from the election to cool. I’m waiting for people to see that masks are a minor sacrifice and not a threat to personal liberty. I’m waiting for the hospitalizations to diminish and the deaths to slow. I’ve been waiting for a reliable vaccine, and now I’ll be waiting for the mass distribution effort that will have to follow. My children are still waiting to go back to school full time. Their grandparents are waiting to see them in person rather than on a screen. And these are pretty easy forms of waiting compared to workers who are waiting to see if they’ll have jobs next week, or nurses waiting for a reprieve from the waking nightmare of their double shifts. Many are waiting to see if their lungs will recover or their minds will clear, while others wait for someone to come home—or for the chance to mourn someone who didn’t. The idea of more waiting—as a necessary spiritual exercise during Advent—seems like trying to cure thirst with fetid water.
Thomas Merton famously described Christmas in this way: “Into this world, this demented inn/ in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,/ Christ comes uninvited.” Is there a better description of our world and especially our nation at this particular moment? “Demented.” Is it not obvious that we have left no room for Jesus? Yet the promise of Advent is that Christ is coming into this world, invitation or no invitation. At the risk of inventing a whole new way to slight the season, I’m not sure it matters if I wait correctly. If it seems impossible to wait because we have both too much time and not enough, then perhaps I can stop worrying about it.
I suspect that the greatest threat to my spiritual life is the belief that I am in charge of it, that it depends on what I arrange rather than what I receive. Perhaps this Advent, which will probably feel a lot more like Lent, I will finally learn that good waiting is a grace, one that hinges on realizing that the arrival does not depend on my vaunted stage-managing powers. That is not to say that we do nothing because a savior is coming to set it all right; rather, the savior is coming even though I myself, with my perfect Christmas script, cannot set it all right.
Yes, we are called to make every road straight, to fill in every valley. But the roads were crooked and the valleys shadowed the first time he came into the world uninvited. He will come into this world, too, whether or not I have deployed my decorations at the precisely correct moment, whether or not I grouse about what is proper to the season in my own demented way.
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