In most retail outlets in Canada, Christmas begins the day after Halloween. Christmas merchandise is on sale, the tinsel trees go up, and carols are pumped through the speakers. We are invited to plunge right into the instant gratification of the season. At the same time, for most of us this is a very busy and often stressful season, as we pour energy into making Christmas just right.
There is another tradition of how to approach Christmas. In the Christian churches, the four weeks leading up to Christmas form the distinct season of Advent. Advent is the season of waiting: as we wait for the yearly coming of Christmas, we put ourselves back 2000 years and more, into the hopes and longing of Israel that God would send a saviour. At the same time, we think forward to Jesus’s promise that he would come again at the end of time, and explore our own hopes and longings for redemption.
The practice of Advent invites us to approach Christmas in a different way: through an experience of intentional waiting. Waiting is different, obviously, than jumping right into something; but it is different also from the stress and busyness of making something happen. It is a practice that wants to lead us beyond both these options to a deeper place.
This is profoundly counter-cultural. We do not do waiting well in our culture. When we are forced to wait - for a bus to come, for a webpage to load - it makes us restless and irritable. It feels just like wasted time. The waiting that Advent asks of us is of a different kind: an actively embraced process of attentiveness will make us calmer, more centred, more at peace and more alive. It is rooted in the wisdom that when we wait attentively - at least for the important things in life - we come to understand more fully what it is we are really waiting for. Attentive waiting can put us in touch with our deepest desires.
What is it we really want, deep down inside, when we are most ourselves? Strange as it may seem, that is something most of us have to work at in the culture in which we live. Social pressure subtly shapes our tastes and appetites, teaches us to want what others want. Advertising works to manufacture desires in us, to convince us that we want this or that product. The convenience of our consumerist culture offer us instant gratification of thousands of desires. The trouble is, with all that input, we can lose touch with the deepest desires of our own hearts. We can lose touch with who we really are, when we are at our best. And because our deepest desires don’t tend to be the things that can be easily realized, we can be tempted to forget about them, not to take them seriously, to settle for second best.
What do we really want, for our lives and for our world? In one sense, the answer to that is going to be different for each of us, as wonderfully unique and unpredictable as we ourselves are. And yet speaking generally, there are likely to be common themes. Most of us long to lead meaningful lives, where we can be creative and make a difference for others. Most of us hunger for more justice in this world, for a better way of sharing and caring for the earth. Most of us desire peace, in the world and in our own hearts. Most of us yearn for lives of love: to be known and cherished for who we are by those around us, just as we know and cherish them.
The practice of Advent invites us to spend time with our deepest longings. By giving them space in our thoughts - and time in our day - we can begin to remind ourselves of our yearnings and passions, begin to befriend them, get to know them, and in so doing we get to know and befriend ourselves anew. The traditional themes of the four weeks of Advent will be our guide: hope, peace, joy and love. Words from the Judeo-Christian tradition - Scripture verses, prayers, and hymns - will serve as a mirror in which we can catch a glimpse of our own longings reflected. And as we enter the process, we enter into the wager of faith: that the ground of all being, the one we call God, might be the source and the goal of all our deepest longings; that God longs to come to us in hope and peace and joy and love, to come and fulfill all our deepest desires. This coming is what Christians celebrate at Christmas as the true significance of the birth of Jesus Christ.