We’ve all talked about it, or griped about it – stores filled with Christmas before Jack-o-Lanterns were carved , round-the-clock Christmas movies on multiple TV stations before Thanksgiving turkeys were even delivered to the supermarkets, and an endless stream of Christmas music to accompany our fall day trips to the beach or hiking trails.
It’s not yet December and many of us have already had our fill.
For many, Christmas is not the holly, jolly season our culture insists it must be.
Our family, like many families, faces circumstances that could easily rob us of Christmas spirit.
Who wants to think about decorating the house or a tree when the pain of losing a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling, a dear friend, or other loved one fills your heart and mind?
And death is not the only loss. Absence is also painful, as families experience when a loved one is deployed and facing danger daily, or when there is a divorce or there are broken family or personal relationships.
It is also hard to appreciate the cheerful songs of Christmas when serious illness has taken over your life, or the life of someone you love.
This season of joy is difficult when a family struggles with addiction and there is a heavy unease accompanying every tomorrow. Addicts and their families live from moment to moment waiting for the next shoe to drop, creating an environment thick with apprehension.
Then there are the often seemingly insurmountable financial problems, stress and anxiety, which is made all the worse by the dreaded feeling of expectation fed by our indoctrination into the commercialized version of Christmas.
Still, for many, this season of sharing gifts and joy with family and friends is made almost unbearable by sheer loneliness.
These are the times in our lives when we most need God, but sometimes God seems so very far away, or absent altogether.
Enter, the beauty of Advent.
Here, in the midst of the most stressful season of the year, is an oasis of time, a time to breathe and to focus on God coming to us and God being with us – now and always. Every Advent I am grateful for the opportunity to rediscover this remarkable truth which I sometimes lose sight of during the rest of the year.
“It does not seem right that the greater should come seeking the lesser; it is we who need God, and we should be coming to Him. And yet while we were yet sinners, when we did not love Him or seek Him, when we were too preoccupied with our busy and important lives to give Him a thought; He comes to us. This is the remarkable humility and love of God poured out upon us again and again,” writes Father Patrick Cardine, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, the Church of my mother.
Though I was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith, I have fond memories of Mass in the small Syrian Orthodox church at the end of the street where my family lived, chief among them lots of icons, lots of incense and the beautiful sound of hymns and prayers in the Arabic language.
Sadly, I don’t remember as much as I should about the liturgies or rituals of the Orthodox Church, but I do have a vague memory of the Nativity fast – the fast of Advent before the feast of the Nativity.
We fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays (some say Mondays as well, but I don’t remember that) much the same as Lent, and our mini-fast after midnight before receiving Communion. Perhaps that spiritual discipline begun at an early age, and which I will admit I have fallen away from, is one of the reasons I still find Advent to be a blessing, a time when we prepare for Christmas by not planning, not spending, not worrying, not feeling isolated and alone, because God is with us.
At the close of every year, after dealing with all that life heaps on us, Advent, for me, is a time to recover the courage, the hope and peace of mind God brings, and is a reminder that I can do all things through God who loves me and who strengthens me … even celebrate the holy day of Christmas.
Because I still have a fondness for the beloved Church of my mother, where I spent happy times with my Syrian side of the family, I still often read reflections from my Orthodox brothers and sisters. This one, from Father Mark Dunaway, pastor of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Alaska, is most meaningful as we move into Advent: “The usefulness of Advent depends on your perspective of Christmas. If the aim of a ‘holiday season’ is simply to seek cheer in winter through gift exchanges, office parties, and family gatherings, then Advent really has little place. The holiday celebrations can begin as soon as Thanksgiving is over and end in a party on New Year’s Eve.
“However, if Christmas Day itself is first of all a ‘holy day’ to remember the birth of Jesus Christ as God becoming one of us, then the grandeur and wonder of that singular event summons those who believe to prepare themselves through prayer, fasting, and acts of kindness, so that they might properly esteem and celebrate this day and let it change their lives. This preparation is the ancient purpose of Advent. Granted, it is difficult to go against the current tide in this regard, but perhaps even a modest effort to renew Advent among Christians could make the difference between a holiday that for many rings hollow and sad, and a celebration that brings true joy in the revelation of God’s great love for the world. If that is the case, it should be an effort worth making.”
“Let us allow ourselves … to teach hope, to faithfully await the coming of the Lord, and whatever desert we might have in our life will become a flowering garden.” Pope Francis