Thanksgiving is a seminal moment in the church year, not for liturgical reasons so much, but because of where it falls on the calendar. Without it, a person, like me, would not be prompted to panic about Advent. And a little panic is in order because Advent is my favorite season of the church year.
Being basically a rebellious person, I really enjoy doing the opposite of what everybody else is doing. If someone strongly suggests I do x, my whole person becomes devoted to the business of trying y. I am a fallen creature, far gone from goodness, very much in need of grace. A season like Advent, which is basically a contrarian moment, allows me to indulge my rebellious nature in such a direction that I am actually thinking about Jesus. It’s the perfect season for the sinner.
And, it seems to me, which makes it all the more desirable, Advent itself is increasingly hard to keep, to celebrate, in this rushy-pushy land of moral confusion. The very fact of the current cultural understanding of Christmas, its ever reaching fingers of chaos, it’s social pressures divorced from religious content, makes it the perfect moment to fling oneself into celebration of this season. After all, Advent is a time of preparation, of getting ready, of thinking about the Next Thing. The real question is, what are we getting ready for?
Well, Jesus, obviously. But that is too easy and too hard. Who can even get ready for Jesus? What does that even mean?
I ask myself these questions all month as I swing back and forth between, on the one hand, the settled, interior joy of contmentment, of keeping the house dark and uncluttered, of not putting up any serious Christmas decorations until there is almost nothing left to be had, and, on the other, the real pressures of the season, the obligations, the desire to show kindness, the brooding expectations of six small faces, the sheer amount of work that is added to each day. Even if I were to entirely unplug my phone and never leave the house for any reason, never actually encountering the wishes and dreams and expectations of every other American, I would still be stressed because I would still need to do a lot of work in a timely fashion.
And all the work is preparation. It takes a whole week to get ready for Thanksgiving and that is only dinner and a reasonably clean house. Of course it takes a month to get ready for Christmas. My Christmases are complicated by me pushing and shoving all the little children of Good Shepherd (though it seems the world) through the Christmas Pageant which happens on Christmas Eve. Then there is, of course, St. Nicholas Day (next Sunday!). St. Nicholas leaves little presents and candy in my own children’s shoes and then makes an actual appearance in church to give out chocolate and oranges after the Peace. There is the the business of the children making presents for all the people they love, usually involving paint, strange wooden objects from the craft store, and me trying to breathe and be pleasant. This year there are some Sunday school lessons to refresh that I’ve had sitting there for months but of course I didn’t actually face them. The list necessarily carries on and on down through my phone, across my desk and into the bottom of my purse. When I pull it off, someone will surely arise and call me blessed, or at the very least, awesome.
It is, indeed, for Jesus. It is about him. The time of busy preparation is meant to give you an inkling, a small taste in your mouth, the relieving sensation of resting the tired hand, a hope of what is to come. Once he did come, small, unassuming, unnoticed, in blessing to bring peace. Only a very few people were waiting, were prepared. Some day, perhaps soon, he will come again, noticed, gathering all assumptions and expectations into himself and showing them for what they are. There should be the business of getting ready for this moment the way a child feels the looming, impending joy of Christmas, of abundance and sparkle, but, unable to keep count of the number of the days and having no real sense of the passing of time, he waits with almost intolerable expectation, eager for the minutes to pass and the work to be accomplished.
Joy, then, because just as he came once, he will come again. But joy matched with sobriety. Be watchful, say the scriptures, watch, be awake, do not be taken unaware. The Lord will surely come and it will be with an overwhelming light, the clear pure light of judgment. As we light our candles, one by one, the darkness seems to overwhelm them. One puff of air and they can be put out. But each candle itself is a forecaste, a cloudy vision of the glory to come. The glory of the Lord will be revealed and we will not be able to miss it, or confuse it, or be distracted from it. If, for a few weeks, I can attend to the mercy of God, can prepare my mind and heart for the eternal weight of his presence, I will have not celebrated this season in vain.