As a cradle Catholic, I have always enjoyed the traditions and ritual around Advent and Lent, the frameworks designed to build anticipation for a great feast to come – the readings and prayers, special dedications and solemnities on particular days, the extra things we are asked to incorporate into our daily lives to get the most from the season. It also makes me reflect on how we as humans need this pattern to our worship, special days to mark.
God doesn’t change and his time is not linear, but it still helps those of us on the road of faith to make certain times of year special and distinct, to recharge, rethink and recommit ourselves to the big picture we’re part of. The other point of these seasons of waiting, is of course that we look forward to an event that isn’t here yet. Christmas and Easter cannot be rushed, despite the best efforts of shops and consumers around us, those that engage in a secular celebration that seems to stretch from the beginning of November and involve a whirling merry go round (or another type of theme park ride with more of a whirling motion – Waltzers?) of gifts, food, alcohol and trinkets, gratification and celebration without preparation or waiting, which really loses the point in my opinion.
Our spiritual state should reflect this waiting; we use the time to acknowledge areas of our lives that need prayer and work, moving towards the hope and joy that we receive from the Lord’s coming, but not rushing it, or our own journey. Our lives as Christians should involve constant honing and recalibration, but we particularly use Advent and Lent as placeholders in the year to do this, trying to prepare ourselves adequately for the feast ahead, aware that we will never be deserving of God’s gifts but that his mercy will recognise our efforts and offerings as our way of trying to render ourselves worthy, and become better people.
This Advent comes during a time of significant turbulence and disruption in my own life. In a way this has meant that I appreciate the true meaning of Christmas more than I have before, because when circumstances are difficult and you are trying to face them with strength and grace, it makes you more aware of your dependence on God, of the transient, fragile nature of the things of this world as well as the futile and contradictory impulses of our own hearts. As well as this, the more positive consequence of going through a challenging time is that you appreciate the fundamental pillars of life that are so easy to overlook or take for granted when you are in good health and living comfortably. The small gifts seem more significant, and are received more gratefully too.
I remember the first Sunday of Advent this year, going to Mass early in the morning and then sharing breakfast in community with some parishioners, feeling thankful for the opportunity to eat a meal, meet new people with different experiences of life, and think about how I would shape this Advent to be most meaningful for me. That evening, I set up a statue of the pregnant Mary, sitting astride a donkey and being led by Joseph, known as a Posada in Mexican tradition, and prayed with my mum for families, travellers and refugees during the Advent season and Christmastide.
Advent started well; I prayed daily and focused on the basics in life, trying not to be distracted by what I thought I should buy or becoming absorbed in social gatherings or what others were getting up to on social media. My little brother arrived home from hospital and for a few days I was simply content for that blessing and devoted my energy to thanking God and showing my appreciation through gestures of love and attention to family and friends.
I always mark the 8th December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, by reflecting on Mary’s total acceptance of the Lord’s plan for her, especially in the face of an event that would have filled her with fear and exposed her to humiliation. She trusted in God, and declared herself his handmaid, because he has done great things for her. I asked for Mary’s intercession, as I often do, to be joyful and hopeful in accepting God has a plan for me, even though I do not know where that will lead me and how different that will look from how I try to plan my life. It is always hard to pray for God’s will to be done and not our own, but memories of how I have felt very low and uncertain as a result of recent changes in my life reminded me in a new way how important it is not to lose faith in God and my role in the bigger picture which will become clear in the end.
I was reminded shortly after this that Advent, like life, is a journey of ups and downs, not perfect and straightforward but with lessons and gifts to be found along the way. There is a temptation for many to try and make a time like Christmas perfect, whether this is in relation to decorations, food, gifts, social events or family relations. I think God intends for disruptions to occur, to remind us that it isn’t for us to try and tie our lives up with a bow. It is more important to be challenged, to become aware of our bad habits and failings, so we can take steps to do better and grow in understanding.
Anyway, to try and move this blog on, the point is I fell back into some habits in the second week of Advent that didn’t serve me well, and this made me feel disappointed and despondent, but it has also been a check point, whilst Christmas is still a little way off, to realise the negative effect some actions and ways of thinking can have on me, prompting me to refocus. The third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, a small break in a period of sombre reflection and penance where we are joyful at the nearness of Christ, so much so that priests wear pink 💖 Despite some feelings that I was run down, fed up and a little alone, I embraced this joy.
Still in my plan for the remainder of the Advent season is to read the Gospels of the daily Masses in the week leading up to 25th December, because they tell the Christmas story, and recount the salvation of mankind, from the beginning. It is always useful to think about the origin as a way of understanding the present and preparing for the future. That is what Christmas will be for me this year, remembering what the message tells me about the purpose of my life and how I can move forward, living better, in the world, but enriching rather than losing myself in it.