We started our service this evening (Nov. 27, 2016) with a short procession – barely six yards and a few steps from the doorway to the Advent candle — but it is long enough to set the tenor for this holy season. In a world where it would be easy to seclude ourselves and disengage from others, we walk… together… in silence.
Not more than a few steps were had before the silence occasionally is broken naturally enough. A cough, a sneeze; the perpetual sound of footfalls against the tile floor. Our voices start out quiet but our bodies aren’t. Indeed, it seems as if our very bodies sing out as we enter the chapel, calling out to the whole Body of Christ to march together in quiet contemplation as we chant an ancient Advent hymn – the verses change from week to week telling the story of salvation history.
As we walk, and as we pray, we all share one thing: a strained hope for a world of mercy, of justice, of peace. This season we’re not going “up to Jerusalem” but quietly moving together to “Bethlehem town” – to the cave of our own hearts and the cradle of God’s love incarnate.
And this is how we come to God: quietly shuffling along, coughing, maybe a whisper to point out the place in the hymn book, and bumping into one another. And, bowing to one another as we reverence the Christ within personified in our partners. We walk together toward the rebirth of our own spirits.
You see, this is not the glorious, boisterous, triumphant atmosphere of a Palm Sunday. Advent is a season for the broken, for those hurting in body or mind or spirit. It is a season for people who have struggled, who can do nothing else but wait. It is a season for a people whose exhausted, desperate cry is only, “Come!”
The four weeks of waiting, preparation, and anticipation is marked by the lighting of the candles on the Advent wreath. As we listen to the strike of a match (or these days to the click, click of a lighter) and watch the flame on the candle leap to life, something happens in us. Gazing on the lighted candles inspires reflection and the recall of memories – not whole stories but snippets of Advent and Christmas past: the gifts we received and the ones we gave – our presence at a special Christmas Mass or program. On and on goes the string of moments and episodes that people offer up when given an opportunity to share.
One such story is told by a woman who recalled the Christmas she experienced when she was a young child eager for a particular doll for her Christmas gift. She’d searched without luck every hiding place she knew her parents used. Now it was Christmas eve. Her parents had a rule that the children couldn’t get out of bed until 5 a.m. to wake them up and open their gifts. But the young girl couldn’t stand it, so at 4 a.m. she sneaked down to the tree to have a look. She recalled the tree was beautiful, all lit up and surrounded by presents. Some were obviously socks, and sweaters and PJs but one looked promising and was marked with her name. Against her better judgment, she peeled back a little bit of the wrapping paper – on the underside where she thought no one would notice. Lo and behold it was just the gift she had hoped for! She danced a silent, exhilarated gig in glee!
Hardly able to contain her joy, she put the wrapping paper back together as best she could and crept back upstairs and went back to sleep with visions of her doll dancing in her dreams. Then, about an hour later, she woke up her parents and the family trooped downstairs – the kids taking two stairs at time, the parents looking almost awake. Much to everyone’s surprise (well, almost everyone) they found a note from Santa that explained that, because Susie had peeked at her gift, Santa had taken back all her presents. She recalled she had never cried so hard in her life. It turned out it was all a prank by her older brother, who had witnessed the peeking. The story has a happy ending though: Susie’s presents reappeared.
Like an eager child, during Advent, Christians wait in anticipation for the gift of Christmas: the coming of Jesus. But unlike curiosity about toys, it’s OK to take a sneak peek. That’s because God wants us to anticipate. And, God will never ever take away our Christmas present from us.
It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope. God only asks that we take time to be aware that in the very midst of our busy preparations for the celebration of Christ’s birth in ancient Bethlehem, Christ is reborn in the Bethlehem of our community, in our homes and daily lives. Take time, slow down, be still, be awake to the Divine Mystery that looks so common and so ordinary yet is wondrously present.
An Ancient Ones was fond of saying, ‘The devil is always the most active on the highest feast days.’ The supreme trick of the devil is to have us so busy decorating, preparing food, practicing music and cleaning in preparation for the feast of Christmas that we actually miss the coming of Christ. Hurt feelings, anger, impatience, injured egos—the list of clouds that busyness creates to blind us to the birth can be long, but it is familiar to us all. The coming of Christ and his presence among us—as one of us—gives us reason to live in hope: that light will shatter the darkness, that we can be liberated from our fears and prejudices, that we are never alone or abandoned.
May this season of Advent be a time for bringing into our hearts, and homes, a spirit of hope and transformation that flowers at Christmas. S. Roberta Bailey, Prioress