I was a little mystified when, in mid-November, I got an email ad announcing 25% off the price of Christmas decorations. The great day of feasting was not yet upon us, the calendar promised one more month of fall and yet, when I went to check out the sale, I couldn’t find autumnal decor items anywhere because the store aisles were already crammed with faux snow and Christmas-themed doodads.
Perhaps if I could just believe like that wreath in aisle seven suggests … aha there it was, a single shelf of potholders, paper plates and napkins with images of brightly colored leaves, festive cats who know how to embrace the season with a catitude of gratitude.
All of it is now 70% off because it’s taking up valuable space that will soon be filled with even more lights and ornaments and laughing santas. I selected a discounted welcome mat that displays the image of a fern, evidently the source of its spurn for being so very unwintry.
Not to worry, friends, I’m not here to be a baubles-grabbing Grinch (though it would behoove us to remember that he found his way to beloved community in the end). Even the infamous Ebeneezer Scrooge found his way to becoming a hero of Christmas despite a bad beginning. So perhaps if I do humbug a bit at first, you can trust a “God bless us everyone!” awaits you at the end.
Many of us who are Catholic or practitioners of other liturgical Christian traditions are simultaneously preparing for both the broader cultural practices that come with Christmas and the more intimate, quiet observance of Advent. A time of inviting darkness to settle around us like a warm, familiar blanket while we cup in our hands a flickering candle — a light too small to illuminate what lies ahead with clarity that instead reflects a wavering but unextinguished hope.
There is a delicious juxtaposition of joy and melancholy throughout Advent that lacks the modern, secularized versions of our ancient, religious holidays. Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter, emphasizing the counter-cultural element of waiting, presence, simplicity. As Lent saves Easter from being little more than a sugar-rush egged on by an over-sized bunny, so Advent saves Christmas from being a consumer frenzy presided over by a crimson-clad elf.
It can be hard to hold space for a still, somber Advent amidst the intoxicating cacophony of holiday spirit that begins haunting our lives as soon as Halloween costumes are put away. Hard to embrace the waiting and uncertainty laced with shimmering glimmers of hope when the world outside is clamoring “It’s here, it’s here, it’s already here!”
During Advent we are not putting all of our energy toward an anticipated outcome but being present within the moment when the outcome is still uncertain; being present even as longing, pain, desire and anxiety beckon us to surge forward. It is a hard practice to remain with the discomfort whilst so inured to this culture of instant, accessible gratification.
The ubiquitous exhortation “Believe” that is so popular this time of year is emblematic of Christmas without Advent. It feels like an attempt to insert some paucity of meaning to fill the gap left when Jesus’ birth and Mary’s prophecy of hope for the poor and oppressed was extracted. We find it on wreaths and aprons, in Hallmark specials and hastily-animated, instantly-streaming holiday kid’s movies: “Believe.” This will bring your broken relationships together. This will help you find your soulmate. This will bring Santa to your chimney. Believe.
Believe in what?! This question has mystified me for years because the subject of the verb is so elusive and when sought is resolved with little more than a wink and a nod.
I relate to a desire to be inclusive, hence simply saying “believe” rather than something like “believe a savior has been born.” I also get that there is power in mindset, in the very act of believing. But doesn’t belief need to be directed toward something? Straight up saying “Believe in Santa!” would frankly be more meaningful, albeit potentially more controversial. Also more silly.
Here are a few messages I’d like to see plastered where everyone can see. (If you’re listening Lifetime, these ideas are free for the taking):
Believe that your life matters. Even if anxiety leaves you feeling weary and useless, believe you are worthy and wanted. Believe today’s struggle does not define you. You can make it to tomorrow. Even if depression makes you feel like you are trapped beneath the weight of an ocean, believe you will rise.
Believe that life in all its many forms is sacred. A piece of earth is not only as valuable as what can be extracted from or built on her, and a person’s worth is not measured by their contribution to the economy. Believe time is not money.
Believe that the people around you are as much a confounding, beautiful mystery as you are. Believe that your capacity for radiance does not depend on whether you outshine the stars around you. Your soft glow is still a miracle.
You. Me. Oneself. This is who the quiet of Advent requires us to sit and to reckon with before joining the feast and passing roast beast, even before celebrating the sacred gift of the divine incarnation. We are certain only of one incarnation — our spirit, in our body — in this present moment. A moment in which we might ask ourselves What am I waiting for? What am I working toward? What do I believe? We must then be patient with the slow, unfolding answer. In the meantime, perhaps we can share this simple prayer: “God bless us, every one.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker Movement, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, three audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.