advent reflects on christmas

This year (technically last year now) I entered into Advent deeply.

It was a conscious commitment, a counter-cultural resistance to the commercialized Christmas that shows up in stores in September, a counter-intuitive move for someone who loves the festivity of family and feasting. But living Advent was a response to a call, a longing I felt (for years, truth be told) to enter fully into the season of preparation before the season of celebration.

It was the best decision I made in a long time. Spiritually, I felt refreshed and renewed. I was freed from the frenzy of trying to get my cards sent and my gifts wrapped before everyone else. I enjoyed the gradual entrance of decorations into our home, savored the few weeks when all we had up was the Nativity set – no tree, no lights, no holly.

Advent gave space and time in our home for prayer and reflection, for waiting and preparing. There was room for the Spirit and we embraced it.

But then. Try as we might to resist, the Christmas whirlwind whisked us away at the end of the month, its irresistible flurry of travel and parties, surprises and snowstorms, cookies baked and meals cooked, plans made and calendars filled, family to visit and friends to see – a joyful but manic rush to the finish of Getting Everything Done Before The Twenty-Fifth.

It was only today, driving slowly through a gentle January snowfall, that F and I quietly admitted to each other that Christmas felt…not quite the same as Advent. We weren’t present in the same way. Its meaning slipped us by.

The holidays were wonderful, don’t get me wrong: S’s delight in unwrapping gifts and discovering new toys, our parents’ and siblings’ joy in seeing his curious ways, this year’s reliving and reinventing of favorite family traditions. We had time away and time together, all good things. And we got to see – whether on Skype or in person – many, many of the people we love most.

But Christmas still didn’t have the depth or the presence of Advent this year. Maybe my spiritual expectations were too high. Maybe the emotional breadth of the holiday pulled me in too many directions. Whatever the case, I found my own celebration of Christmas (not my family’s, not our friends’) to be lacking this year.

I know that the Christmas season stretches out till Sunday, and I still have time to live into it. But I’ll admit to being swept into the new year already – new calendars, to-do lists, the urge to organize and start afresh. Sadly, I’ve jumped back into ordinary time.

All this was frustrating me as of late, spiraling into a feet-dragging “I should have done Christmas better” funk. Until I stopped to remember that Christmas is no one-sided feast.

We focus on its joys and delights, its lights and loves. But the first Noel – and every one since – has been mingled with challenges and fears, mixed with complications and emotions. This is the human side of the Incarnation: the raw, real us that God meets each time he is born anew in our midst.

F reminded me today of the Holy Family’s frightened flight to Egypt. No sooner had the baby’s birth been sung by angels then his parents were sent by strange dreams to a strange land, far from the home and people they knew. Christmas doesn’t get more complicated and challenging than that.

We can prepare all we want, dream and plan. But the reality that greets us on Christmas morning may never be exactly what our Advent longings imagined. We bump into real people on the way to the manger, meet our own shortcomings as we follow the star.

And this can be good, in the earthly, humble, human sense of good. It may not be the spiritual zenith for which we yearn, but it reminds us that we are made to long for something More, something beyond this world and its feasting. We are pilgrims on a journey, and the restlessness urges us further.

Advent taught me that this year. Perhaps my next year’s challenge is to live the longing into Christmas, too.

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