The need for Advent
When I was a kid, I could have sworn that time slowed down in the week before Christmas. Especially on Christmas Eve itself. It’s as though the hours before Christmas moved in ways different from the ordinary passage of time.
The sense of expectation was as thick as the scent of the Christmas tree. (I think we did have an artificial tree one year, but that was never repeated.)
I could never imagine then what I have sometimes experienced as an adult: Christmas Day is a day not all that different from other days. There’s Mass, and a big roast dinner (typically served two or three hours late), followed by carols and the exchange of gifts. But the festivities are diminished by Christmas fatigue.
I haven’t (yet) reconciled myself to the spectacle of “post-Christmas” sales on Boxing Day (the second day of Christmas!), and the discarding of Christmas trees and decorations soon after. But I can see how that is consonant with the experience of Christmas Day as a day of respite – a day of deliverance from the silly season of Christmas parties and last-minute shopping. By the time the Christmas season actually starts, some people are over Christmas!
It’s a long way from children’s experience of Christmas. But I don’t think the problem is the loss of childhood. The problem is the loss of Advent. I’ve heard Advent described as a “Little Lent” – there are the violet colours; the call to extra prayer; the invitation to self-denial. But more importantly, Lent and Advent share a focus on the Last Things. Lent begins with a focus on our mortality; Advent begins with a focus on the Second Coming.
This focus, and the prayer and sacrifice of Advent, stills us. It fosters hope and expectancy. It reduces the stress of the silly season and magnifies the grace of Christmas. It magnifies the magic of Christmas.
It’s fair to presume, I think, that the saints lived the spirit of Advent. It’s remarkable how many of the saints – normally pious and respectable – resembled excitable children at Christmas time. So many of them – especially in modern times – were remembered by their contemporaries for singing carols with gusto, studiously admiring Christmas decorations, spending hours in front of the nativity scene, and nursing the image of the infant Jesus. In other words, the saints sustained the enthusiasm, the excitement, the wonder children have for Christmas.
One of the things I’ve resolved to do this Advent is drive one kilometre per hour below the speed limit. (Normally I sit three or four kilometres above the speed limit, because I’m pretty sure my speedometer exaggerates my real speed.) It’s only day one, but I’m surprised how much this has cost me. I really hate being overtaken. If sitting on the limit isn’t self-denial, nothing is!
Hopefully this will foster the sort of peace and recollection Advent is designed to advance. (Hopefully, too, it won’t provoke impatience and road rage in the people who overtake me!) I want to experience the Christmas of my childhood. Or better, the Christmas of the saints.