Vol. 1 - An invitation to enter Advent attentive and aware
August and I sit outside the ice cream shop on Clement Street, licking chocolate from plastic spoons and watching the bustle of a city Sunday afternoon pass by. We’re having an afternoon together while Brooks sleeps and Chris builds some bookshelves. I’m still, sitting on a park bench beside my kid, quiet and satisfied.
When it’s time for his haircut he’s happy with the old Peter Pan cartoon playing in the tiny shop. He watches and all those last strands of bleached summer blonde fall to the floor. His hair is winter-hued now, those dark layers underneath are in full view. After I pay, Shi the hairdresser gives August a lollipop, which he immediately begins to unwrap. But I know what too much sugar does to him and I decide it’s worth fighting. I know we’ll be with friends tonight and I know there will be cake. I suggest (strongly) that he save it for tomorrow. Of course, he is desperate for the lollipop.
Here we are walking down the sidewalk past the bench where we were sitting thirty minutes ago content and calm beside each other. Now he is screaming at me. Now he is falling on the sidewalk and I’m speaking semi-calm words like: “Make a good choice!” (My teeth grinding as I say it.) Here we are and it’s the first day of Advent and we didn’t even make it to church because the boys are still recovering from the latest round of viruses to pummel our house. I should have compassion for my healing boy, but he is driving me crazy on the sidewalk. He’s screaming, “I need it!” and all those things they told me in the parenting books about natural consequences and giving choices seem useless in this moment. I’m tired. I made my choice. No lollipop right now. We’re saving it for later. So get up off the sidewalk and keep up.
Grace is hard to come by.
I need to finish unpacking my house. I might pop a blood vessel if I don’t get pictures hung up soon. I’ve hardly thought about buying Christmas presents and our Christmas cards are waiting for my hours of devotion.
Yesterday morning in the quiet minutes while I read in my bed, I remembered that I am the one making the choices. I get to choose how I enter into this season. Will I respond to the demands of others, will I live a life of pleasing the people who expect something: the right gift, the appropriate greetings, the happy gatherings, the home-baked dessert, the Awesome Christian (and Wonderfully Crafty!) Mom Award for best leading your kids into the story of Jesus?
Who can do it all? But how can we not? How can we hold both the cultural expectations (knowing that even in the stress of it, there are sweet rituals that really do bring joy) and the honest search for Christ, a living awareness of Advent: waiting waiting waiting.
Last week my friend Molly posted her motto for the Christmas season on her Facebook page: Take a deep breath. Smile. Do less. Enjoy more.
It’s simple, right? Do less, enjoy more. What is it that makes us scurry around? It’s always time. There’s never enough time. There's not enough time to accomplish the list of tasks required of us. There’s not enough time to live up to the social demands. There’s not enough time to stop and wonder at the awe of the whole thing: God come to earth. Emmanuel. Angel shouting from the skies. Shepherds gaping at the glory. A mother torn open (in every way) in the cow shed.
What sort of fear lies underneath the expectations we set for ourselves, the expectations set for us? How can we quiet the fear so we can be attentive to the nearness of the Great Story?
The more I’ve come to understand God’s presence and goodness in the mundane, the more I’ve learned that there is a way to hold it all. The Benedictines believe there is enough time in each day. It is possible that time can be a living organism we hold and care for tenderly, instead of something that abuses us. It is possible that if we start by examining what’s true in this mess of pre-Christmas stress and longing, what’s true about gift giving, we might just find the joy in it. We might discover that instead of frantic checking off of lists, we can give with freedom and calm. We can give because we love. Even in the midst of the two hour shop-a-thon and the anxiety it may bring, we can choose to love in good, small ways.
We can learn to say no when we need to protect the quiet. We can claim the rituals our family will practice and let go of the ones we're failing at. Maybe we won’t get the family Advent readings done everyday. So, if sometimes all the spiritual instruction my kids get is how the Playmobile Nativity Set and Lightning McQueen fell off the dragon’s cliff (aka the couch), maybe it's okay. There’s grace here. God takes what I have to give.
Advent is the season for waiting. For expectation. We are pregnant along with Mary. We are waiting for our time to come. There is fear in that. And joy. There is an ache. On good days I feel it, the Christmas tree glowing in my living room at 5:30 in the morning. The hope of that one small moment of the day when the silence is mine to hold and lean into.
You know that Joni Mitchell song:
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
Singing songs of joy and peace.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I love sad songs. I like it when somebody’s honest about how the joy of this season is always mixed with dread. I like it when we can be honest about the complexity and the sweetness.
For the next three Mondays of Advent, we’ll examine what it might mean to join Mary in this waiting: in vulnerability and attentiveness, in pondering and honesty, in the hopeful sisterhood we find between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth.
There’s a lot to that Joni Mitchell song. It’s a sad one. But that image of sliding away on ice—away from the harried anxiety of this season—is sticking with me. Can we lace up our skates, admit that there is not enough time for any of this Crazy? Can we glide out of it and into the quiet of the woods?
Can we ease onto this one long river that leads to the coming Christ: The swoosh of our skates in the ice cold of the silent air? We’re invited to this one long river that is always heading away from what is untrue toward the Good True Thing.