Friday, December 17, 2010

Secular reflections on Advent

Advent in the religious sense was not a concept I was familiar with as a child. I knew about advent calendars – my sisters and I shared one every December, some years with pictures and some years with chocolate – but I thought they were just a way of literally counting down the days to Christmas, meting out the excitement and anticipation. This made plenty of sense to me; I can also remember years when my sisters and I counted down the hours until our birthdays on the day immediately preceding it, and this felt the same, though on a different timeline.

Only recently did I come to understand, or at the very least catch a glimmer of understanding of, the genuine symbolism of Advent. When my children and I started attending the Unitarian Universalist church here in town about seven years ago, I heard the words spoken over the lighting of the advent candle each of the four Sundays before Christmas, and understood for the first time that Advent wasn’t just counting down the days until Christmas burst on the scene but rather a profound observance of waiting, hope and expectation.

This year, Holly and I were invited to be the Advent candle lighters for the very first week of Advent. Holly lit the candle, while I read the traditional words: “We light this first candle for the Hope of Advent. May it kindle in us hearts full of expectation.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of Advent ever since that last Sunday in November. The weeks before Christmas do indeed have such a sense of wondrous expectation. There’s still the spirit with which I understood Advent from the advent calendar when I was Holly’s age, of course: the wondrous expectation of Christmas presents – both giving and receiving – and the arrival of Santa Claus. And at the other extreme is the wondrous expectation of devout Christians: awaiting the birth of their Savior. But many of us fall between those two endpoints. We are waiting to see how our holiday expectations may or may not be met: whether the family gatherings or vacations will go as we hope, whether the parties will be as merry as planned, whether the meticulously purchased or crafted gifts will be received with delight. Some are waiting for the return of a family member: from college, from far away, from military service. In the case of our minister, whose first grandchild was born earlier this week, the Advent was literal this year: she and her family were joyfully awaiting a birth as the weeks of Advent unspooled.

To me, the air itself feels full of quiet waiting. Not necessarily waiting for something wonderful and thrilling, but for something unknown. It’s been very cold this week, and there’s no snow: the ground is hard and amazingly still. The earth seems to await snow, in the same way that there are people right now awaiting news, information, reasons for optimism, answers. And it confirms that the process of waiting can be in itself a spiritual act.

Contemporary spiritual writer Edward Hays, author of A Pilgrim’s Almanac, wrote this: Life is a constant Advent season: we are continually waiting to become, to discover, to complete, tofulfill. Hope, struggle, fear, expectation and fulfillment are all part of our Advent experience.

Yes: that’s true all year long, and for the four weeks preceding December perhaps most notably. The earth where we are right now is still, cold, and quiet, and there are many things to anticipate, to await, to wonder if they will arrive.

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