Is there some part of you seeking an escape from the stress of a lengthy Christmas to-do list and the prattling advertisements that saturate the airwaves long before December? Are you distracted, perhaps even burdened, by how upbeat everyone is expected to be during this “most wonderful time of the year”? It’s all too much, isn’t it? Too much, too soon. And we wonder: How can this superficial busy-ness represent the meaning of the holiday season? Is that all there is?
As people of faith, we know the answer to the last question must be a resounding NO! After all, today is only the first day of Advent, so how could our hearts already be attuned to the softly whispered invitation of the Christ Child bidding us to draw near? And even when the calendar does come round to December 25, Christmas isnot about all that has been accomplished on our to-do lists. It is about remembering who we are. How gifted we are to have two inspired sources — the rhythm of creation and today’s readings – to free us from seasonal distractions and focus Advent on what truly endures.
In our northern hemisphere, autumn brings the end of the growing season and the shedding of the abundant, extravagant beauty of summer. Productivity is over. The light and warmth of the sun have markedly diminished, and soon we will arrive at the winter solstice: the shortest day, the longest dark night, of the year. Nature is starkly at rest, it is gloomy and cold, and our uneasy spirits sense loss. The upcoming winter and end of the calendar year are just that: endings. For some, the end of this life cycle may represent painful personal loss; it may even portend death. And with all our might, how we human beings resist loss, endings and death; how much we prefer to skip all that Advent hardship and get directly to the celebration of Christmas. Even better, let’s omit the letting go of autumn and the hardship of winter altogether and move right into the promise of spring and the fulfillment of summer! Yet this cycle of nature, which we share with all of creation, is inevitable, it is out of our control, and it is blessed.
Adventus: an arrival, a coming, a new beginning, an invitation to believe – again and again, and ever more deeply – that new life springs forth from each loss, from each ending, from each death. Advent, the liturgical season that begins today, is meant to be a time to focus our consciousness on what truly matters, to savor and honor our place as “clay” in “the work of [the potter’s] hands.” God is creator; we are creatures; that is the relationship on which all else is founded. “Rouse yourselves, be watchful, be alert,” Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples, lest they – and we – become so distracted as to lose sight of our God-given place in the cycle of life. For all of our busy-ness and apparent accomplishments, the truth is that we are as vulnerable as a newborn child. But in accepting Jesus’ message of new life, we learn that so much of what distracts us and causes fear and anxiety – so much of what we seek to avoid — is rendered powerless in the face of letting go, in entering into loss and surrendering to life endings.
The Season of Advent reminds us that our human losses and vulnerabilities are indeed the very threshold to lasting life. Without crossing that threshold, how can we hope to welcome and celebrate the vulnerable infant, Emmanuel, “God with us,” whose arrival we anticipate with joy?