In Praise of Advent

It’s Advent, that lead up to Christmas …

Days full of shopping, baking, writing Christmas cards, bankrupting yourself to stash enough food in the house to feed the five thousand, (Uncle Frank included) who will descend like locusts on your house come Xmas day.

Sound familiar?

Advent can feel a bit like the ‘plain-Jane-forgotten-relative’ of Christmas, brought out of the shadows only to dispense chocolate goodies behind numbered doors in the lead up to Christmas : ‘The REAL Event’.

Poor Advent, always the bridesmaid, never the bride!

When I was a child, my mother would put us down to rest in a darkened room before our birthday parties.
How frustrating that was!
Far too excited to sleep, it felt like wasted time!

My mother knew though that this ‘time out’ would calm us down, enable us to enjoy the party more. Without it, we were scratchy, over-excited. Tired and irritable.

Advent is a bit like the ‘rest’ before the party.
And we play the fractious children : “What’s the point! Bring on the party!”

But there’s a hidden magic to Advent; a magic you can’t find until you take off the gaudy wrappings of frenzied seasonal busyness.

Traditionally in the Christian calendar, Advent (deriving from the Latin, meaning ‘Coming’) begins on the fourth Sunday leading up to Christmas Day, and is a time given for preparation and reflection, not only on Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but also traditionally on His Second Coming. It often included fasting, and certainly prayer. It was ordained as a quiet, introspective time, where we go on an inward journey to prepare our hearts for celebrating the Coming King.

The days preceding the Biblical account of the Nativity were days marked by reflection and journeys too. Mary pondering the angel’s message, Joseph coming to terms with life-changing news, the unexpected journeying to Bethlehem, the shepherd’s journey to the stable. And later on, the journey of the Magi.

Advent is all about preparing for journeys, some planned… some unexpected. Getting ready for something big, some ‘sea-change’. Physical journeys certainly, but spiritual journeys too, where the time of reflection ushers in new insights, new hearts and minds to take into an unknown future.

This year I’ve come to appreciate this ‘bridesmaid season’ a little more.

I’ve come to see that it’s about preparing my heart, and not my larder, for the coming days.

This year, I want my days stripped back, marked by simple gifts and simple pleasures, good friends and family times.

I’ve taken a step back, moved into a quieter place. I’ve said ‘no’ to a lot of things, and I’ve felt better for it.

Last year you see, Christmas didn’t really ‘happen’ for us as a family. In mid-December, my mum (whose body, but not her mind, had been failing for a while) suddenly became unresponsive, and she passed away peacefully on Boxing Day.

Our Advent then WAS passed in waiting, but not in hope or in ‘Expectation of News of Great Joy’, but in that awful no mans land, holding vigil and waiting with sickness of heart, not for a longed for birth, but a dreaded departure.

Each day, we would spend time at her bedside, playing the music she loved, talking to her, praying with her, doing her hair, applying hand lotion or her favourite perfume, reading her stories, and I think for each of us, we were preparing ourselves for an end we knew would come. It was a painful, difficult and exhausting time, but, strangely, not one without its mercies.

Those long days gave us the gift of time, the grace of being able to be ‘present’, time to prepare ourselves, to reflect, time to say and do all we could for her. Time was given us to use the best way we could. Not everyone has that and I now see it as a blessing, and I’m grateful.

Time is often given us, not to DO, but to BE. To allow things to develop and GROW in us. And growth always requires undisturbed time.

I love it that life itself, and the turning seasons teach us about the values of Advent. They tell us, as the nights grow darker and the air colder, that it’s time to slow down naturally, to go into ourselves. To nurture the reflective, the spiritual, the creative.

We’ve lost touch with this. Our lives are no longer in sync with the seasons. We feel obliged to ‘keep going’ 24/7. Life can sometimes feel like a non-stop carousel we can’t get off.

It’s winter. My garden stops growing, stops (thank heaven!) needing my attention. I’m barely home from work and have to draw the curtains and though it’s only eight o clock, I want to hunker down.
I’m content to sit in a pool of light from the standard lamp, wrapped in my dressing gown, quietly reading a book. I have no wish to venture out.

It’s hibernating season.

The whole world seems to be sleeping.

Animals retreat to hidden dens to sleep away the winter.

Seeds and plants lie dormant,

Everything looks dead.

It’s not of course.
Life is ‘sleeping’, storing and conserving energy for the spring, when conditions for growth will return and new life, new shoots will appear.
We know this, because predictably, year after year, we see it happen.

Black bears don’t even wait for Spring. They give birth in the depths of winter, WHILST hibernating.
Odd as this seems, it makes perfect sense. Whilst the mother bear is asleep, she isn’t expending the energy she will need when she awakens to tend to her cubs.
Sometimes life begins where we least expect it.

When winter holds the world in darkness, look closer…
It isn’t death. It isn’t a season to fear …
it’s a season for quiet incubation, a time for re-assessment and re-grouping, of storing energy for the days ahead, preparing for the next stage of our journey, of drawing strength to enable the growth of new seeds, new life.

And that can only happen if we give ourselves permission to withdraw from the hustle, allow ourselves time to reflect; time to incubate and create, time to listen to the still small voice, that brings the gifts of creativity, revelation and inspiration.

I love that winter hides her treasures… that you have to dig for them.

It truly is the introvert season!

There is a time for all seasons. A time for life and a time for death.

I had heard that people nearing the end of life often sense that they are getting ready to go on a journey. I was fascinated, but more than a little sceptical. But as her health began to decline, my mother did sense that she was about to go on a journey. Ever practical, I didn’t make the link, and reassured her that she wouldn’t end up on the hospital ward again (her one fear).

In those waiting days before she passed away, we were given time to understand.

We were able finally to reassure her that her train was waiting in the station; that she had her reservation. She only had to choose her time to get onboard.

So, for those who go into the Christmas season this year with sadness in your hearts for loved ones gone this year, trust the turning of the seasons. Embrace the lesson of Advent and get quiet, step aside, take strength for the journey onwards. Allow the still small voice room.

The seeds will, in time, begin to grow again. And Spring will return.
Just as it always has.

Blessings,

Lynne

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