My first Advent.

 

By Sailko (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Sailko (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The first time I celebrated Advent I had no idea what was going on. I’d been married to a Lutheran seminary student for just a week when we moved to Eugene, Oregon for his internship at a small, Lutheran church. United Lutheran sat on a little grassy hill in a neighborhood dotted with 1940 bungalows – one of which would serve as our one bedroom home for a year while Matthew tried out being pastor-y with a group of real live church-goers.

What I remember most about that Advent in 1996 was singing Vespers. I had never sung evening prayer before and all I knew of Vespers or Matins (morning prayer) was that monks and nuns in movies about medieval Europe had to keep a strict schedule of prayer. If they were late or disruptive, their stern Mother Superior (or whatever the monk version of that would be) would scold them and make then scrub the scullery floor. I’m unclear if this image came from The Flying nun, The Name of the Rose, the Brother Cadfael Mysteries on PBS, or the early scenes of the Sound of Music, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I really had no idea that people in modern times ever did things like pray Vespers or Matins, or that they did these things without having to wear robes and habits.

But Advent Vespers at United Lutheran Church in Eugene, Oregon was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever experienced. A small group, perhaps 20 of us, would gather at 7p on Wednesdays sanctuary of the church to sing our prayer. We all seemed to enter church by unwrapping our scarves as though needing the light and warmth of the Advent candles to warm the skin on our necks before we could relax enough to sit still. The greenery of the Advent wreath gleamed by the shifting light of the candles placed around the room. And there we gathered, in a silence particular to the time of year when the days are so, so short.

In those soft evenings, the quiet of late December surrounded  me – but my life itself was loud. I did not know how much I needed to settle for 45 minutes into song and silence and hear someone sing about the angel Gabriel and Mary. The first time I heard, you have cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble of heartyou have filled the hungry with wondrous things and left the wealthy no part I thought that it was the most radical and beautiful thing I had ever heard. I did not know that it was lifted straight from Luke’s gospel, and not just some Leftist songbook, and I cried the first time I sang it. At the time, I was employed to cook meals for folks with HIV. We had a lovely little cottage called the Acorn Center where HIV positive men and women could come and be with their fellows and eat a warm meal. In the day I would feed emaciated junkies and gay men, many of whom were at the mercy of a heartless government system to meet their needs and on Wednesday evenings I’d sing of a God who fills the hungry and uplifts the humble and singing that made the rest of my week make more sense. I’d soon learn that people all over the world were singing this song of Mary’s and that the Magnificat has always been sung at Vespers, and that when I sang it that Advent, I sang it with all who had come before, all the monks and nuns and faithful of every age, as well as all who gathered, as I was doing, to pray in the Winter of 1996.

All of that is to say, to experience the liturgical year is to sing the story, live the story, be re-oriented by the story and to do it all with others…all who did this before, all who do it now and all who will do it after we have gone. It is to have duel citizenship in the now and the not-yet. To celebrate the church year is to be sewn into the story of Jesus in a way that allows the fabric of our lives and our world to take on a holy texture. It allows a newly-almost-Christian young woman to see Jesus in the ravaged body of a man dying of Aids because earlier that week she had heard Jesus’ mom sing about how God fills the hungry and uplifts the lowly. And having sung the song Jesus’ mom had sung, that young woman started to see Jesus.

 

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  • Thanks for this piece. I appreciate you from the distance of the unknown, but still value your voice and heart.

  • Thanks. Just thanks. I fall in and out of my appreciation for liturgy and praying the hours since I more regularly attend a contemporary church. But I do love the Christian calendar and try to mark the major blocks of time, Advent and Lent, on my own blog, Meditations from Zion. You are preparing my heart as well.

    • Guthrum

      I have noticed and seen amazingly some churches starting to observe Advent, Holy week, Ash Wednesday. Churches of pentecostal and Baptist denominations !

  • ChristChurchRichmond

    This is so beautiful. Thank you for reminding me of why I love Advent.

  • Smriti D. Isaac

    I am not Catholic, and therefore do not observe many traditional events, but I have a great appreciation for marking the seasons – both physical and spiritual, and this tradition of Advent that marks the commencement of anticipation of the birth of our Lord Jesus incarnate is a special time of year to me personally. I am thrilled to focus on what an incredible concept it all is. For God to become flesh and come to redeem my soul and teach me to live some two thousand years before I even came into existence myself is an utterly magnificent and humbling realization.

    Thank you for this lovely piece. I so enjoyed it!

  • Vicki

    Does anyone know who painted this image of Mary?

  • Ari

    Beautifully written. I am trying this year to understand Christ with Mary. The ancient liturgy and “songs” of the ages is what made me Catholic. I know you’re not, but I really relate to the beauty of the liturgy as you so aptly describe it here.

  • grateful1

    Thanks so very much, Nadia. (I found you via Elizabeth Scalia’s Catholic blog.) Seeing Advent through your eyes has immensely enriched my appreciation of it.

  • Kenny Ray Pierce

    This is so poignant. I was raised, ate and breathed Roman Catholicism until I came out in 1985, at 21, in time to spend the better part of my adult life living in San Francisco and Los Angeles through the time of the plague (“nature’s revenge”). I walked away from God, and the beautiful liturgical and its apostolic traditions, amidst all that I was told and saw. It wasn’t until about 14 years later (in AA, oddly) that I really came to regain a glimmer of trust and longing for those faith and liturgical traditions of my youth.

    When you speak, so much of your story of death and resurrection is such a part of my own. I never knew how much it was such a part of my DNA and something that I missed so much.

    Initially, I found inclusion and liturgy in the Episcopal/Anglican church, but later, the Lutheran thinking around grace and the sinner/saint paradox fit a “wretch like me” like a glove. Though I’ll never regain my days or naiveté as an altar boy (and all of the firsts for me amongst the bells and smells), the beauty of that sea of continuity that you describe so often is achingly beautiful.

    Thank you for giving words to describe our place in that sea (those still here, and those that we lost). There is a multitude among those whom you describe, who survived and have spent decades remembering. Most still believing that the table, the liturgy, and their place in it all is denied to them. My hope is that they not be forgotten, that a voice reaches to earlier generations as it does to the younger Christians. That they someday too are brought forward to the wreath to light the candle. They’ve waited and endured much for far too long for anything less

    Blessings, and so many thanks!

  • Thanks so much. At a time when I’m experiencing flaming rage at the way people of color are being killed indiscriminately, reading your piece feels like being on a beautiful, calm island in the midst of an ugly storm.

  • CKPS63

    Vespers, Evensong, “Lessons and Carols” — there’s something truly deep and magical about evening services at Advent. Whatever one’s church background, they are part of an ancient legacy left to all Christians. Everyone should try them out at least once.

    • Guthrum

      I certainly agree. My best memories are of the quiet, meditative Advent services, a real preparation of the coming of the Lord. I have been in a church that does not observe Advent and I can tell you that I really miss out and it is just not the same.