November 25, 2008

The Advent of Christmas [jenna]

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way …

The witches have whisked off department store shelves, magically leaving red and green and tinsel in their place. “Jingle Bells” hits the department store airwaves on Black Friday. Brace yourself.

“It’s the spirit of the season / You can feel it in the air …” Cold. Coupons. Long lines. Brightly colored paper (unless you’re artsy, like my family, and use earth-tones.) “We three kings of Orient are / Smoking little rubber cigars …” Life-size Santa Claus robots saying “Ho, ho, ho!” “Merry …” ummm … “Happy Holidays!” The company parties, family parties, friend parties. Overwhelming amounts of sugar. “Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock …” Holiday episodes of every show on television. Snow tinsel bells decorations candy trees parties beer relatives jingle bells jingle bells jingle all the way …

The first candle

“For people who live by the liturgical year, the transition into Advent can be as physically invigorating as the shift from summer into fall … I’ve learned how much the Advent season holds, how it breaks into our lives with images of light and dark, first and last things, watchfulness and longing, origin and destiny.” —Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, pp. 67, 72

On the fourth Sunday before Christmas (November 30 this year), a circular candleholder is brought into church. It holds four candles: three purple, one pink. The purple candle furthest from the pink one is lit; that single flame burns, and for the Western Christian calendar, the liturgical year has begun.

While the outside world goes on with its melee of expectations and meaningless hubbub that one must appear to enjoy or be labeled ‘a Scrooge’, quiet and mystery hold place in the Advent season. The big party is coming; we just have to wait for it.

The second candle

Advent is a time of repentance, of waiting. In the slowly increasing light of these small flames, we remember the long wait of the world for Christ’s coming, and our current wait for his return. We prepare ourselves for him, dusting off the old disciplines of prayer, meditation on the Word, and even various forms of fasting. In liturgical churches, the Glorias are restrained until Christmas.

It’s almost impossible to celebrate Advent exclusively nowadays, at least without offending a lot of people. Most of the parties happen before Christmas day. Likewise, shopping for gifts has to be done in advance, and a trip to a retailer almost always entails a week of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”—or worse, “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart”—on instant replay inside one’s head.

Still, Advent has its means in times of silence, prayer and reflection, in putting off the Christmas decorating for awhile, in letting the season and its intrinsic waiting remind us to wait on Christ.

The third candle

The third Sunday of Advent arrives, and the mood lightens with the candle color. We light the pink one. Gaudete Sunday is a day of ‘joyful anticipation’ (Gaudete is the imperative form of a Latin word meaning “Rejoice”). It comes as a reminder that our repentance moves us in the direction of final happiness. It is hope:

“for who hopes for what he already sees? But  if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” —Romans 8:24–25

Eagerly … like a child awaiting Christmas.

The fourth candle

“O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

Four flames rise from the Advent wreath; Christmas is less than a week away. The above verse is one of the “O antiphons” from the last week of Advent, meant to be recited before and after the Magnificat during evening prayers. The hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a combination and paraphrase of the O antiphons, all of which call on Christ to come to us.

I hear John Michael Talbot’s mild, beautiful arrangement of the Magnificat. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my Savior. For He has looked with favor on my lowliness.” Mary, the virgin mother of Christ, set us the Christian example in her “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord” just a few verses back. In her song—as in all her example—she points us to her son and Savior.

The white candle

Advent is incomplete without church on Christmas day, or at least the night of Christmas Eve.

From ‘watching and waiting’, the season leaps forward into joyous vibrance. The hushed, haunting, minor-keyed “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” modulates into the heaven-meets-earth “Hallelujah Chorus”; the bells ring out in good earnest, and when we get to our Gloria, we sing it with angel choirs.

The white candle may or may not be a part of the Advent wreath, but it is lit for Christ on the celebration of his birthday—and perhaps for the full twelve days of Christmas, for the Christmas season itself lasts until Epiphany, the commemoration of the visit of the Magi, on the sixth of January. By Epiphany, the retailers have got their red and green down and even the New Year’s sales on diet products are yesterday’s news, and the Christians are, as usual, the only ones still happy about the birth of Christ.

As impossibly backwards as the whole celebration is to the secular way, getting to Christmas through Advent puts back before our eyes the whole purpose of having such a holiday. It requires us to ponder, in our own hearts, the sacred mystery that is so central to all Christian doctrine: the Divine becoming human, taking part in our physical existence, obediently putting on our mortality, all for our redemption.

Jesus. Our Savior, who “though we have not seen him, we love him” (paraphrasing St. Peter).

“For who hopes for what he already sees? But  if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.”

Eagerly—like a child awaiting Christmas.


  1. I've been wanting to secretly abandon Christmas this year... or at least the so called "traditional" Christmas... undercover scrooge. maybe next year when i have well thought out reason that i can explain to family.

  2. "Quiet and mystery"...lovely. Thanks for sharing these advent meditations.

    Also, no thanks for starting "Last Christmas I gave you my heart" in my head. You suck.

  3. Quiet contemplation... hope... calling... eagerness.

    I love it, Jenna. I love that who you are reflects this piece so clearly in my mind. There is definitely a sisterly part of me that feels more kin to liturgical churches during this season especially.

    Also, hurrah for the Kathleen Norris quote! Made me smile.

  4. i definitley have a love-hate relationship with liturgy i think bc in my background my experience with it wasn't life giving but it was really cool to read this and connect ritual with authentic hope and life. o come o come emmanuel is my all time favorite i think. ive sort of gone through a journey with christmas so i understand where Justin is coming from with wanting to abandon it all together, a few years ago i went on a rampage and photographed all of the ridiculous nativity scenes i saw around lebanon and made a creepy collection lol, but this year im really connected to the paradox of light and dark, and the hope and mystery of christmas. especially the mystery part. and i think traditions like advent help us connect to that hope without full understanding. i dont know if that makes sense. but i liked your piece and thought about it for a few days =)