I’ve been a Catholic for twenty-one years now, and among the many beautiful gifts I discovered in my reconciliation with the Church, the season of Advent holds a special place. Growing up in a typical American evangelical home, we went straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas (and from there directly to Easter and then to the Solemnity of the Fourth of July). In the home of my youth there was no consciousness of Advent, of a season of mystery, longing, and paradox. Mystery because we wait for His coming in the flesh at Bethlehem, and this incarnation is the supreme mystery of our faith. Longing because we wait for his coming again at the end of time, when our redemption and the redemption of all creation will be made manifest. Paradox because we wait daily for his coming into our hearts. As the novelist Michelle Blake writes, the paradox of Advent is “that while we wait for God, we are with God all along, that while we need to be reassured of God’s arrival, or the arrival of our homecoming, we are already at home. While we wait, we have to trust, to have faith, but it is God’s grace that gives us that faith. As with all spiritual knowledge, two things are true, and equally true, at once. The mind can’t grasp paradox; it is the knowledge of the soul.”
Over the last many years, however, I’ve come to recognize another reality about the days and weeks of Advent. We who are able and so inclined will sink comfortably into this beautiful season. As the Feast of the Nativity approaches, we will no doubt trim the tree, ring it with gifts, and decorate our homes. There will be cooking, baking, the pervasive scent of pine, family gatherings in the evening lamplight, and music. A lot of music. We will sleep in a little longer, or read that book we’ve been meaning to get back to, make plans for the new year, and count our blessings.
But those on the margins, especially the poor, will experience Advent and the Christmas season that follows very differently. The poor will often have to choose between providing their children with a happy Christmas or paying the rent. They’ll walk around with a knot in their stomachs, the ruinous arithmetic of the season occupying all their thoughts, their desperation deepened by advertising which suggests that unless they can buy the latest and the most expensive they are losers and unworthy. Once again, they’ll find themselves out in the cold, faces pressed against the frosted window, and wondering how they missed out on the lovely party inside.
Pray for everyone you encounter this Advent, but remember the poor in a special way. Resolve to be Christ to them this year. In return, they’ll become Christ to you, and your Advent will be doubly blessed.