The True Spirit of Advent
As a child, I had no idea what the ritual symbolized. For me, it was just fun, not unlike many of today’s children for whom the opening of gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning is just fun.
Every holiday, I would find myself the recipient of something of a cardboard poster or a little house or even a Christmas tree with little cardboard doors. And every day, I would open one of the little cardboard doors to reveal some worldly delight such as a photo or a toy or an ornament or a joke!
And even as a younger adult, I had no idea what the ritual symbolized. But it was no less delightful to find myself the recipient of something of a cardboard poster or a little house or even a Christmas tree with little cardboard doors, and every day to open one of the little cardboard doors to reveal a worldly delight such as a biscuit or a coin or a charm or one of about thirty hand-crafted artisan liquors. (Yes, artisan liquors.)
But as a grown man, I find myself less interested in pictures and ornaments, coins and charms and more interested in what the ritual symbolizes. It seems notable to me that both Easter and Christmas are preceded by periods, each about four weeks in duration - the period preceding Easter being known as Lent and the period preceding Christmas being known as Advent. Both arose in those centuries that followed what I imagine to be a clandestine gathering of men in some stone and dirt room, pouring over countless little scrollss (writings spanning some 1,000 years - writings of history and poetry and song and metaphor and mythology and symbolism and tribal preservation and food handling and flat-out social justice indictment - that they might at long last arrive at that final collection you now know to be your Judeo-Christian Bible.
In other words, Neither Lent nor Advent is a biblical construct. Both arose in the centuries of the early church.
Over the centuries since, the rituals of Advent have included forms of prayer, penance and fasting. It’s ironic, don’t you think that In the early days the season was acknowledged with fasting, not yule logs and frosted cookies, caramel puddings and fruit cakes, ginger breads and what’s that thing I discovered in the pacific northwest – Danish Kringles?
The rituals of Advent have included the lighting of candles. And of course, the rituals of Advent have included that elevated wreath upon which those candles would float, their light increasing and expanding with the coming of each Sunday morning.
In the end, it seems to me that whether marked by prayer and penance or fasting or candle lighting or wreaths or even opening little cardboard doors, all would establish a period of anticipation and preparation. Even the word Advent is drawn from a Latin root meaning “The coming.”
And so I suppose it makes good sense that Advent has been leveraged by some as a period of anticipation and preparation for personal baptism. And if that’s you, we welcome you to do just that. I will be delighted to remind the very soul of you, through this ancient ritual, of its divine origin, of its limitless potential and of its eternal nature. I will be delighted to affirm that if there’s anything to be washed away, it’s the dangerous belief that you are somehow less than the very essence of God expressing itself in our world. I would be delighted to do that.
And I suppose it makes good sense that Advent has been leveraged by others as a period of anticipation and preparation for the second coming. And if that’s you, that’s a really good choice, too. But you will do well to consider that the second coming isn’t about the physical return of a single personality. The second coming is about the spiritual awakening of an entire people. In other words, the second coming isn’t a single act one man will perform but an evolutionary change countless people must welcome. In this sense, the second coming isn’t best conjured as us waiting for Jesus as it is Jesus waiting for us.
And I suppose it makes good sense that Advent has been leveraged by still others as a period of anticipation and preparation for the nativity narrative itself. And if that’s you, great. But I suggest again that any anticipation and preparation for that single event that occurred 2,000 years past must give way to anticipation and preparation for something of what that single event represents in your world. In our world. In today’s world.
In any event, it seems to me that the early church communities knew something that we metaphysically minded folk would arrogantly claim as our own. And that’s that you must become a person of that which you would have realized in your world. You must become a person of greater friendship if you would realize greater friendship in your world. You must become a person of greater sufficiency if you would realize greater sufficiency in your world.
And by extension, that we must become a people of that which we would have realized in our world. We must become a people of greater peace if we would realize greater peace in our world. We must become a people of greater love if we would realize greater love in our world. And this work isn’t accomplished by waiting. You don’t become a person of greater friendship by waiting. And you don’t become a person of greater sufficiency by waiting. You become a person of change through the energies of anticipation! And we don’t become a people of greater peace by waiting. We don’t become a people of greater love by waiting. We become a people of change through the energies of preparation!
And so it is that while Advent has a long history of being defined as a season of waiting, I prefer to imagine that the nativity narrative – that the birth of Jesus the itinerant teaching/healing/miracle-working rabbi, and that his full embodiment and bold demonstration of the universal higher consciousness we would call Christ - didn’t arise from a period of waiting. It arose through the energies of anticipation and preparation.
I have to wonder how many really good, truly profound or deeply holy births (and by births, I’m speaking metaphorically now) ever emerge from waiting.
You can wait for a partner whose journey and whose sensibilities and whose personality serve to allow both of you to become your fullest selves. But I might suggest that the energies of anticipation and preparation will get you there quicker. And you can wait for a job that allows that creative genius in you to let out the full length of the reigns (thank you Ralph Waldo Emerson) and that serves as the channel for a divine compensation ample to all the workings of your soul. But I might suggest that the energies of anticipation and preparation will get you there quicker.
And yes, we can wait for a world that so deeply perceives the divine in all creation that honoring at long last becomes humanity’s way; we can wait for a world that so deeply grasps our kinship as members within a family of life that equality at long last becomes humanity’s standard; we can wait for a world that so deeply accepts the value inherent in a limitless diversity of expression that curiosity at long last becomes humanity’s hue! But I might suggest that the energies of anticipation and preparation will get us there more quickly.
Perhaps I should just say it this way: in the symbolically long and dark nights of any human incarnation (and some would argue that we’re in a symbolically long and dark night now), we can wait for the dawning of light. But I suggest that the energies of anticipation and preparation will get us there more quickly.
You are surrounded by mothers and fathers who want a sustainable future for their children just like you do. You are surrounded by daughters and sons who cherish those who have come before just like you do. You are surrounded by souls who have extended previously unequaled gestures of human decency, performed previously unprecedented acts of nonsensical generosity, demonstrated previously unthinkable feats of miraculous possibility.
I have witnessed countless examples of honesty.
I have witnessed countless examples of humility.
I have witnessed countless examples of healing.
Let us cultivate the energies of anticipation and preparation by looking to these highest of angels instead of looking to our lowest of fears. Advent affirms the promise of greater light. Advent affirms the promise of higher possibility. Advent celebrates that innocence of children of all ages each of whom – beyond any and all cynical appearances to the contrary – know that there’s something in that Santa character that’s real after all.
Beyond the form assigned, the voice of Advent seems to rise above the whirling onslaught of television commercials, sign spinners and social media specials to say, “Turn away from all of that. Come with me. Let us leverage this as a period of anticipation and preparation for something really good, for something truly profound. Turn away from all of that. Let us leverage Advent for something deeply holy.”
The voice of Advent seems to rise above the political tensions, pandemic speculations and economic fears to say, “Turn away from all of that and come with me. Let us leverage this time as a period of anticipation and preparation for something really good, for something truly profound. Come with me. Let us leverage this time for something deeply holy.”
The call isn’t that we become a people of patience. We are called to become a people of readiness. The call isn’t that we step aside, but that we step to center that this promise might be realized through us, and let us do so in active anticipation of becoming people of greater light.
And may each of us continue to pull open the countless little cardboard doors of life, in eager preparation of becoming people of higher possibility.