I was raised Catholic and I worked in youth ministry both as a volunteer and as a paid employee for many years. While it’s been many years since I have been to a church for anything other than an occasional Mass here and there (weddings, funerals, sometimes a visit on my own), I always return to the liturgical calendar when it comes to December.
Our Decembers, societally, are filled with parties and shopping and work events. They are crammed full of obligations and Pinterest boards for just the right DIY gift wrap or food item. If we’re not stressing about all of the things we have to go to, we have getting the right gift for someone on our minds. Maybe it’s a first Christmas with a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/partner. Maybe we’re shopping for our siblings, our parents.
It can be fun and it can be joyful, and for me, it often was mostly just exhausting.
By the time we get to January, we’re careening to a halt, trying to catch our bearings and return to our stasis, our resting spot. Except for then we jump into New Years Resolutions and all of the things we need to do to change ourselves. And all the money we are supposed to spend doing it.
If we buy into it.
What I love about the liturgical calendar is the season of Advent. Here’s the rundown, in case you’re not familiar. Advent takes place over the course of the four Sundays before Christmas. It is its own season, apart from Christmas. Like the cheese, it stands alone.
Advent is my favorite season and I think it’s because I find that I spend a lot of time there. At its heart, its core, Advent is about waiting. For Catholics, it’s about waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s about waiting to celebrate that the Promised Messiah, the fulfillment of who we are called to be, to become, to stretch into, that is who is coming.
When I was a child, we celebrated Advent several ways. We’d light an Advent wreath before our dinner each night. An Advent wreath has four candles: three of them are purple and one is pink. The pink candle comes on the third Sunday of Advent. My siblings and I would all take turns lighting the candle throughout the month of December, and eating with lit candles during one of the darker months of the year has a lot of wisdom behind it that surpasses just passing the time as you count down the weeks to Christmas.
Another way that we celebrated Advent was by placing straws into the manger. My mom would put out a manger at the crèche scene. The shepherds and the wise men and the rest of the figurines would make their way over the course of the month to the stable. But, the magical part was that we were responsible with filling the manger with “hay” for Jesus. Every time we did something kind or something that went against what we might have wanted to do (such as choosing not to hit back your brother or sister) you would put a straw in. Bonuses were that other people could put a straw in if they saw you do something extraordinary. My memory of the actual practice of this is fuzzy, but I do remember it taking place in some form of this.
Through it all, through all of the markers of time, what I recall most is the sensation of waiting. Of expectant waiting.
Hell, even Christmas morning, WHEN JESUS HAD ALREADY COME was about waiting when we were kids. We had to wait to go downstairs until my dad had made sure Santa was gone. We had to wait while we all read through the Christmas story on my parents’ bed, taking turns and reading aloud from the Bible. We had to wait while we paraded down the stairs caring someone’s baby doll, singing Christmas carols, and we had to wait while we opened gifts, one gift, one person at a time.
So why is Advent one of my favorite seasons?
Well, here’s the thing. I spend a lot of time waiting. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not twiddling my thumbs over here, waiting for things to magically appear or magically get done. No elves are coming to make my shoes during the night.
What I wait for is for life to happen.
When I meet with my teenage client who is over having a tutor, but whose parents want her to have a tutor and I meet with her again and again, through subterfuge so that she doesn’t feel like we are making her meet with me? I wait.
I wait for her to come around.
I wait for her to smile again.
I wait for her to not meltdown.
When I date someone and we are together and we are together and we are together and then we are not? I wait.
I wait for the absence of the sense of missing something, someone.
I wait for the mourning to be over.
I wait for the time when I’m ready to be open to someone again.
When I grow up and become an adult and navigate relationships with my parents, with my siblings, and negotiate new roles based on new people? I wait.
I wait for myself to grow up a bit.
I wait for them to grow up a bit.
I wait for the vulnerable conversations that go poorly and the vulnerable conversations that go well.
When I have a fight (and I don’t mean a small one, I mean the type that ends friendships) with a friend? I wait.
I wait for the hurt, the betrayal, the loss to simmer to lessen.
I wait for the space to look back and see the goodness and the beauty of our friendship.
I wait for the moment when I can hear their name and not cringe.
I wait for the time when we return to each other, after years apart, and build something stronger. Something more true.
Through it all, I wait.
With the mundane things too, I wait.
I wait for the food from my farm to be planted, to grow, to be harvested.
I wait for the school year to finish so that I have a vacation.
I wait for my kittens’ spay wound to heal so that I don’t have to vigilantly watch them and ensure that they don’t lick their stitches.
See, life, life is about waiting. An active waiting. Not a passive waiting. And there’s a rhythm to it and a hum behind its song.
And that, my friends, that is what gives me hope. It gives me hope in the tears and hope in the exhaustion. Hope in the darkness and in the depression and in the hunger. Hope in the loneliness and in the solitude and in the mourning and in the difficult moments. Hope in the anger and in the betrayal and in the failure. Hope through it all.
Because see, that’s what Advent’s about. It’s about hope and grace and waiting. As life is.