Santa and Mrs. Claus showed up at Chick-fil-A two days after Thanksgiving, looking totally relaxed. Perhaps all their holiday cookies are made and in the freezer; presents are wrapped and ready to go. Now their only job is to greet harried customers like me waiting impatiently for fast food, so we can return to our frantic search for the perfect Christmas gift, or at least, the perfect parking spot.
We rush headlong from Thanksgiving to Christmas, completely bypassing Advent. But Advent and Christmas are different. Advent is a pause, a season of waiting, and Advent is missing from our culture. From its earliest days, the Christian church set aside an entire season dedicated to the end of the world and waiting for the glorious coming of Jesus. In 480, the bishop of Tours decreed a fast, three times a week from November 11th until Christmas. Spiritual writers like Alfred Delp, a Jesuit and member of the resistance to Nazism, wrote from prison in 1944 about Advent as a time when “We are shaken to our very depths, so that we may wake up to the truth of ourselves.” Fasting and dark meditations matched the shortening days and colder weather of early winter in Europe.
Needless to say, we don’t see these spiritual practices in our country right now. My intentions for the Advent season are always good, but I find it hard to slow down to prepare my heart for Christmas amidst our fully caffeinated world. The frenzied political season has given way to a frenzied Christmas season. Incessant political ads of last month have been replaced by pop-up Christmas ads, mailboxes filled with holiday catalogs I do not want and did not request.
Just as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade moves seamlessly from Thanksgiving to the last float of Santa waving in Christmas, we blink as one season ends and the other begins. We don’t want to sit in darkness and wait. Dark meditations may help us wake up to our own spiritual needs, but we’d rather bring on the twinkle lights.
We do not need to look far to find darkness and a need for waiting in hope. Wildfires in California have heralded dark times for those who have lost their homes. Climate change, in the form of consistently higher temperatures and less moisture in the air, has resulted in dryer timber, and made these fires worse. A broader portrait of the environment was provided in The National Climate Assessment, released last week by the Trump Administration. As The New York Times reports, the assessment “is the most comprehensive scientific study to date detailing the effects of global warming on the U.S. economy, public health, coastlines and infrastructure. It describes in precise detail how the warming planet will wreak hundreds of billions of dollars of damage in coming decades.”
This news does shake me to my very depths. Advent, an intentional pause in our life, is both a time of preparation and a time of hope. Thanksgiving and Christmas are only bookends surrounding Advent. Two holidays filled with gratitude, with a month long pause in between. The pause is our time to reflect, to consider what our response will be to the promised gift of the baby in the manger.
I find myself waiting in hope that the manger will not always be empty. I do want to pause, to prepare myself for something miraculous, Emmanuel, God among us. I want to prepare my heart to receive once again the presence of God in our midst.
Perhaps the perfect parking spot is the one in front of the empty manger, sitting, waiting, praying, and preparing our hearts to be open to the presence of God. Even in dark times we wait in hope, knowing that we too have something to offer. We receive the gift of the baby in the manger, yet we know the gift is not for us alone but for us to share. We have been gifted so we might share our gifts with others, that we might be a beacon of hope in a dark world. We have received the light to pass on, bringing light and hope in the darkest days of winter. What will you bring to the manger this year?