When something is important to us we do what is necessary to prepare for it. If we have an exam and want to get a good grade, we study. If we have a performance, we rehearse. If we have a game, we practice. If we have a report to write or a presentation to give, we spend time researching. We do what it takes to achieve the outcome we desire. If they are important to us, this dynamic also applies to religious holy days like Easter and Christmas. Lent is the forty days during which we prepare for the celebration of Easter, and Advent is the four weeks prior to Christmas that is meant to focus our attention on the “reason for the season.”
Christmas the holiday is a wonder-filled time of year. Decorated trees, lights, the exchange of gifts, and the singing of carols, all create an ambiance that is magical especially, but not only for young children. Christmas the holy day is also magical. Stories about the too-crowded inn, a babe in a manger, shepherds keeping watch, etc., cast a special glow whose warmth can penetrate the hardest heart. But there is a deeper meaning to Christmas than either the secular or even the religious trappings/stories suggest, one that invites us to enter into Advent in a reflective/contemplative manner.
If we view Christmas not merely as history, the celebration of Jesus’ birth, but as mystery, the coming of Christ in us, then the weeks prior to December 25th which are so likely to morph into last minute shopping, become a time for stopping; they are not a time to be busy, but to be still in the hopeful expectation that a sacred self is forming within us, and that we are called to give birth to it.
When we look forward to Christmas, as either a holiday or holy day, we are prone to overlook the God-presence that is our deepest self. Monk and mystic Thomas Merton summons us to recognize that presence in ourselves, and in all humanity: “Make ready for the Christ whose smile, like lightening, sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps in your paper flesh like dynamite.” Although our awareness of it is often dormant, there is within each of us a sacredness waiting to be born, a goodness that can bring light to a world shrouded in darkness.
In the midst of the hustle and bustle leading up to Christmas, Advent offers the opportunity to quietly ponder the truth of God’s indwelling, to feel its stirrings, and to anticipate its explosive potential to “set free the song of everlasting glory” that waits to be sung through us.