Advent Silence & Our Poor Goblets

“You too left Egypt when, at baptism, you renounced that world which is at enmity with God.” — St. Augustine

The Benedictine Nuns at Oxfordshire had a silencing snow to bring a profound stillness to the start of Advent:

The mantle of snow lying over much of Britain this morning will not be welcomed by all but it is the perfect gift for the beginning of Advent. Snow is mysterious, beautiful, silent. It both conceals and reveals. It draws us away from the ordinariness of life to its extraordinariness, and it does so softly, silently, almost stealthily, just like Advent.

At Vespers this evening we shall sing the first of those haunting Advent chants, full of Israel’s longing for the coming of the Messiah. Then we shall enter into the special silence of this season: the silence of waiting while the mystery gradually unfolds, like a winter rose on Jesse’s ancient stem.

And what was the chant?

Tremble, O earth, before the Lord,
in the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turns the rock into a pool
and flint into a spring of water.
– Psalm 114

And the third antiphon: “I am coming soon, says the Lord; I will give to everyone the reward his deeds deserve.”

Tremble, O earth, indeed. I read the antiphon and immediately thought of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta’s line, (paraphrased): “When we meet God, he will not look at what we have done, but at how much we have loved.”

That, of course, reminded me that St. Therese of Lisieux’s thoughts on bringing to God either a thimble or a goblet full of love.

If we are to be indicted by how much we have loved, by how much we love day-to-day, by what love accompanies our actions, our thoughts, our behaviors, our remarks, our snarks, our prayers, then I suspect many, many of us who believe we are “doing alright” in the love department, and who presume we’ll be dragging a wine barrel full of love to our meeting with Jesus, will be surprised to discover that–standing in his perfect and unerring light–we are presenting to him a spilled, half-empty goblet, at best.

Advent is a time for waiting, and also for taking stock. Post-Thanksgiving, I read the headlines about “Black Friday”–the me-first excesses, and the whole mindset that says it is permissible to dehumanize oneself (or to participate in dehumanizing others) as long as one is saving 50% on a “must-have” piece of plastic, or on electronic instrumentation that within weeks will be broken, tossed aside or outdated, and I regretted the materialism that feeds all of that.

We are all materialistic, of course. We live in a prosperous age, and we are daily tantalized by things that are “new” or “improved.” The perfectly-working phone we used yesterday is not good enough today, because today’s phone has yet another capability that one “must” have, in order to “stay connected” because our myriad options just aren’t enough. There aren’t enough ways for people to get in touch with us, at every moment of our lives. The serviceable shoes must be thrown out because they are “last season’s.” And what is the point of living, if you don’t have Ugg boots to trot around in?

Thank God for Advent! Thank God for 28 days in which to turn away from all of the “new” and “improved” must-haves-of-the-season in order to ponder some ancient things that cannot be improved upon; psalms and prophecies – a promise of a new way, and fresh beginnings, brought to us by the One who Is, Was and Ever Shall Be; who existed before all and will remain when all is ended.

A promise of light in a season of darkness and bone-chilling cold – and cramped hearts full of fear and bitterness and blame. The Authentic Light we so long for that we set our houses and trees ablaze in artificial light, and wonder at the small, fleeting comfort we find, there.

The True Light, of course, will set the sun aside, like a moon in daytime. It will shine exteriorly, without blinding us; it will permeate our souls and we will be truly illuminated.

In that light, that Originating Light–the Light in which we see Light itself–our hearts will be warmed and dilated; our shrunken, constricted vessels enabled to flow again with love.

And then, we will get another chance to choose: the thimble or the goblet?

Advent is a time for getting our heads and hearts together, so we can choose wisely.

Speaking of choosing – the Pope started Advent with a pro-life vigil. His homily, which is typically wise and very affecting may be read here

A few Thanksgiving and Advent reads to help get things started:

Deacon Greg:

I showed a picture of a “cherpumple” to my wife and she agreed with me: it’s absolutely disgusting.

Some things just aren’t meant to be mashed together like that.

But I have to wonder if we haven’t done something similar with Advent and Christmas. For all intents and purposes, we have managed to create one massive season – “Chradvent” – that conflates two distinct seasons into one. And it’s starting earlier and earlier.

Hundreds of radio stations started playing Christmas music the day after Halloween – many of them all Christmas, all the time, 24/7. The week before Thanksgiving, I was amazed to walk by an apartment on 108th Street and see the lobby fully decorated, complete with a fully lit Christmas tree and wrapped gifts. Last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I went down to Sergei’s Barber Shop on Ascan Street for a haircut and saw workers unloading Christmas trees to sell. How anyone could expect a Christmas tree to live a month or more is a mystery to me. But people do it. I saw cars going down Queens Boulevard with trees strapped to the roof. Even before Thanksgiving, it seems, we’ve started to celebrate “Chradvent.”

Msgr. Charles Pope and the recipe for readiness:

Marcia Morrissey: Give Thanks in ALL Circumstances

Pat Gohn: The God Who Makes Himself Small

Rocco Palmo: The Waiting

Beginning to Pray: The Peace Established by God

Brutally Honest: Prepared to meet the king?

YIM Catholic: Appreciating Advent as only a convert can.

UPDATE: I noted last week that I might be closing comments for the first week of Advent. Haven’t decided on that, yet. Deacon Greg has shut his comments down for week one, and the place already seems saner. I may keep comments open this week, and close them on the second week, to encourage folks to go more deeply into it.

Advent Reading: if you forgot to find something suitable to read for the season…

About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • Jackie Parkes

    Lots to ponder in this post..

  • Margo

    I’m so glad you spoke of the materialism that seems to overshadow the true meaning of Christmas; and it happens year after year. This point should hit home with all of us and it gives us something to think about it. Thank you for reminding us of the beauty and true meaning of Advent in the midst of these shallow, uncertain times.

  • deb

    Brilliant . Thank you.

  • Mandy P.

    I went through the Rite of Welcoming yesterday at Mass and am very excited to be a “Catholic-in-waiting”.

    We used to put up the tree and all the trimmings the day after Thanksgiving and I was always so excited when the holiday music and such was rolled out at the stores. This year, not so much. I guess it’s because I know what it means now. It’s funny because while this is the first Advent that I’ll actually be celebrating in a traditional manner, I’ve longed to do something similar for several years and just didn’t have any idea how.

    I’m also finding myself caught in a weird place with my non-Catholic friends and family. While I’m very joyful in my new place within the Church and am anticipating the true Christmas season, I’m finding myself sad when I encounter the secular Christmas attitudes and displays. I’m having a hard time enjoying the music in the stores and wasn’t able to empathize with a relative who was upset about a specific toy she wanted for her children being sold out. I was even a little sad when my sister-in-law sent me an overjoyed message about some great deal she got on something or other- I didn’t tell her that, of course. I feel like everyone else around me (outside of the Church members I know, anyway) is really missing out. Is that normal?

    [You're becoming a sign of contradiction. Welcome home! -admin]

  • Teresa

    After watching some of the black Friday news reports, I still cannot get my arms around about why people become so obsessed with shopping for bargains. The spectacle of people running over other human beings with no regard for anyone was so disturbing that I turned off the TV midway through the report. Very sad commentary on our society.

  • Jim Hicks

    My weekly e-mail from the Abbey of the Genesee (Cistercians) stated they also started Advent with a layer of snow. Gets the season started right!

    I, too, am annoyed with the music and decorations starting so early. I seldom listen to music radio after early October because of the bombardment of holiday music.

    Advent started two weeks ago for Eastern Orthodox Catholics. The season starts for us November 15/16. If you go back to ancient Ireland, Scotland and Wales, you will find that was also the “kick-off” date for them. The ancient Celts observed Eastern, not Western, traditions. For us in the USA, that means Thanksgiving is a bit of a problem, culture wise! For those of us who follow the fast, explaining what you had for Thanksgiving dinner can receive interesting comments!

  • Nan

    Mandy, don’t be surprised if, as you grow closer to God and your priorities change, you adjust relationships with non-Catholic family and friends. I know I have; often when my friends want to go for happy hour or something, I’d rather go to Mass.

    They only way I can empathize with unsuccessful shoppers is to understand that they’re attempting to buy something with which to surprise someone else and are disappointed by their failure to get a good deal on the prize toy of the year. The thing to remember about bargain hunting is that sometimes the only way people can buy certain things is when they’re on sale.

  • Mandy P.

    Nan, you’re right, of course. And I put on my best sympathy face because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I guess I just find myself looking around at all the THINGS people seem to be focused on and it all seems so trivial to me. I realize it’s not trivial to other people, so I’m doing my best to be as polite as humanly possible.

    Thanks for the welcome, Elizabeth! It’s great to be home. I’m so overjoyed that I literally spent all day yesterday with a huge smile on my face. Even my husband commented on it. It’s funny because the Sister who runs the RCIA program said something about how happy I looked during the ceremony and I panicked for just a split second- worried that it was supposed to be solemn and that I’d messed it up for the other candidates.

  • Ben

    I spent my time in Black Friday lines reading the Divine Office from my iPhone. 50% off at Gap and more time to pray than I can find on any other weekday of the year… Worked out OK!

  • Ben

    I thought the point of the thimble/goblet metaphor was that we _can’t_ choose–some of us have thimbles and some of us have goblets, and our job is to fill our own vessel to the brim with love.

    The corollary is that our neighbors, for all their apparent ungodliness, may well have overflowing thimbles–so that, like the widow with her mites, they have already given all that they have.