Advent and the Christmas Feels

Article written by: Trustee Anthony Hoffman

Have you ever stopped to wonder what exactly Christmas ‘magic’ is? You know the feeling? That warm rush in the soul that can often blindside you on a cool December evening as a quiet snow drifts past the glow of Christmas lights.  Or maybe as that special family tradition or decoration comes out of the box one more time.  It’s like a deep breath of fresh air that has a delightful waft of cinnamon and mulled wine.

I have to admit that as I age, that ‘feeling’ is less and less frequent.  You can ‘do’ all the right things.  Pull out the decorations, build a fire in the fireplace, wrap the gifts, listen to the same tunes that brought the feeling in previous years, watch all the same holiday movies, check, check, check, now, FEEL.

If only it were that easy. 

But I think there is something to this.  As adults we often lose something in our to-do list, decorating and busier holidays.  We lose a certain sense of wonder.  Ralph Sockman said that “Christmas restores our youth by stirring our wonder.”  

The scriptures tell us that “The beginning of wisdom is fear of God” (Prov. 9:10). As many theologians have unpacked, fear does not mean terror so much as a sense of awe.  To be in wonder at the vast, incomprehensible and transcendent nature of God.  That sitting under the impossibly starry night, a stomach somersaulting immersion into an epic kind of ‘whoa.’  Even that soft Christmas snowfall is bursting with a certain incomprehensible presence. 

In the Gospel we read “unless you become as children, you will not enter the kingdom of God (Matt 18:3).”  I think there is a distinct relationship between these ideas.  That as we get older, and fill up our to-do lists, we aren’t participating more in the wholeness of the world, but actually in less of it. 

We are less present to the heightened beauty of the season, the wonder and curiosity that kids walk through it with.  Less available to the Transcendent.  We push it out with a focus on the purely material preparations.  How can we expect to get swept away in the cosmic ocean of meaning or a fuller participation in life if we are looking for it through routine?

Catholics celebrate the four weeks leading up to Christmas with a special season called Advent, which is an intentional time to develop a new heightened spiritual lens.  One that cracks open the shell of routine that often prevents us from seeing the world.  St. Thomas Aquinas often taught that growth in the spiritual life isn’t so much done by grasping, but by a more complete letting go and ‘sinking in’ to what is true and real.  Wonder is not something we reach for, but that we surrender to.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the season that commemorates the birth of God-made-man, would be filled with a distinct and present sense of wonder. It’s as if the veil between the transcendent and the material is particularly thin throughout December.

There are records of Advent being practised quite early in Church history and it was always understood to be more of a penitential season. Much like Lent in the spring when Catholics participate in intentional fasts and charitable works to prepare for the resurrection at Easter.  So why would the church recommend ascetical practices as a prescription for spiritual growth?

Almost every world philosophy and religion has some version of ‘memento mori.’  A call to ‘remember death.’  Not in a morbid, or masochistic way, but as a way to align priorities with what ultimately matters.  Advent has always had an echo of this awareness infusing its celebration.  

Some in the church would even call Advent a ‘mini-lifetime.’  Imagine the lighting of the first purple candle on the advent wreath as the beginning of our spiritual life.  This of course culminates in the lighting of the white candle in the middle of the wreath at Christmas as symbolizing meeting the Lord at the end of our life.  The four weeks in between are meant to re-connect us to the awe and wonder of what meeting God will be like; as well as to prepare our hearts for such a culminating experience.  We confront ourselves during Advent with difficult spiritual questions and intentionally challenge ourselves to higher virtues, and deeper spiritual maturity 

Advent is a time to awaken the soul to the whole truth of life again.  Or perhaps for the first time.  

Leading up to Christmas is often a time where charitable works seem to double, hearts soften, concern for the needs of others is more on fire in our hearts.  Food drives, hampers with toys and turkeys for those who can’t afford them are wrapped up with a special lightness and warmth in the soul.  In other words, love is made present on earth.  

If God is love, how can this surprise us, that God’s birthday is when love becomes more present and tangible in the world?  If we try to fabricate the Christmas feeling, it seems to fly even further from us.  As we try to control love, we tend to lose it.  Advent is then a time to lighten our grip of control, in order to let wonder back in.  To marvel at the complete surprise that was the babe in Bethlehem.  And to go out to meet Him.

The world would have searched for the Babe in some palace by the Tiber, or in some gilded house of Athens, or in some inn of a great city where gathered the rich, the mighty, and the powerful ones of the earth.  They would not have been the least bit surprised to have found the newborn King of kings stretched out on a cradle of gold and surrounded by kings and philosophers paying to Him their tribute and obeisance.

            But they would have been surprised to have discovered Him in a manger, laid on coarse straw and warmed by the breath of oxen….. No one would have expected that the One whose fingers could stop the turning of Arcturus would be smaller than the head of an ox; that He who could hurl the ball of fire into the heavens would one day be warmed by the breath of beasts; that He who could make a canopy of stars would be shielded from a stormy sky by the roof of a stable; or that He who made the earth as His future home would be homeless at home.  No one would have expected to find Divinity in such a condition; but that is because Divinity is always where you least expect to find it.”  -Ven. Fulton Sheen