I will admit from the start that I am a relative newcomer to Advent calendars. The church in which I was weaned did not observe the liturgical seasons. I had to wait until I was over 40 to learn that the joy of Christmas morning is minimized if we haven’t prepared ourselves spiritually with a quiet and expectant Advent observance; that we cannot appreciate nor even understand the miracle of Easter if we have not purified ourselves to accept Jesus’ sacrifice through our observance of a holy Lent. But I digress.
I started out by acknowledging that my experience of Advent is relatively recent. In fact, I first learned about the season only in 1996 when Victoria and I started attending St. Christopher’s—on the first Sunday of Advent, to be exact. So I have had exactly seven Advent calendars. The first six conformed with the definition I found in John N. Wall’s Dictionary for Episcopalians: “A special calendar to mark the passing of days in the Advent season. Advent calendars usually have a series of small windows to open, revealing a different scene for each day in the season and concluding with a nativity scene on Christmas Eve.”
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the window for December 10 on this year’s Advent calendar. Lo and behold, there were Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at the manger, accompanied by a scripture verse appropriate to the scene. Something about unto you is born this day in the city of David. I can’t exactly remember, because I was quite taken aback. I have continued to open the windows in their chronological order. The story has followed in its familiar succession. The shepherds. The angels. The magi. What is happening here? The Epiphany on December 13?
I will admit that I have been tempted to look ahead and find out what is in store for December 24 on this very strange Advent calendar. I have joked with friends that it’s no wonder Cokesbury had this particular model on clearance last year. But then I realized that maybe this calendar isn’t so defective, after all. Perhaps it has an important lesson for me and for all of us this Advent. What exactly ARE we waiting for, and what exactly DOES Christmas mean to us?
I will admit—I keep admitting things, don’t I? Well, this time I was going to admit that I have not been looking forward to Christmas this year. Many people become depressed at Christmas, and this year I have been tempted to do the same. In addition to the fact that with my father’s death in March I officially became an orphan, this will also be the first time I have had to attend the Christmas Eve service at St. Christopher’s alone. In addition, I already have my Christmas present from Phillip—a fancy new Nikon camera that I got in time to take on our trip to Disneyland with Victoria at Thanksgiving. Tempted, I said. Well, at least I am honest to admit that becoming depressed is a temptation—a choice—and not an affliction. The opportunity to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our lives is a great blessing, and here I am, sitting around and crying because I am going to church alone? Alone, surrounded by my dearest friends? Alone, with the family I have chosen to be a part of? And it’s amazing I could even admit that part about the camera.
Thinking about that crazy calendar has put my own vision back into a better perspective, but then my thinking became more focused. I really want to know what that calendar is going to reveal on December 24. I really want to know what we are waiting for this Advent. Certainly we as Christians are not waiting for the birth of our Messiah. We re-enact that first coming each year in remembrance of an in gratitude for the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly it is Easter far more than Christmas that tells what we are about as Christians. And our more important focus even during Advent is on the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to return in power and glory.
Advent, like Lent, is a penitential season. I have certainly looked inside myself this year and found selfishness and despair, which I need to replace with generosity and joy. And I remember so well my first Advent in 1996. I had not only been “unchurched,” but completely without a spiritual life, for 23 years—half my life. It took only a few brief Advent lessons for me to know that I was waiting expectantly for Jesus to come to me. I was full of unexpected joy.
May we all have a sense of joy and expectation as we prepare ourselves for the renewed presence of Jesus in our lives. May he do new and unexpected things for each of us in the coming days. May we all be surprised when we open the window on the Advent calendar that is our lives on December 24.
God bless us every one.