He came with love to Bethlehem;
He comes with grace into our souls;
He will come with justice at
the end of the world.
–Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, Divine Intimacy
Advent simply means “to come” (Latin: advenire, from ad – “to,” venire – “come”). Christians have traditionally set aside this liturgical season to anticipate the coming of Christ. Advent is a season of attentive waiting. Of course, as with all waiting comes the inevitable agony of anticipation – so much so that we are inclined to want to do something to make the waiting itself bearable and meaningful. In this regard, Advent is an active season of mindful preparation as well.
When a young couple discovers they are expecting a child, it is not enough for them to simply wait out the nine months and hope for the best. On the contrary, there is necessary preparation. Perhaps they clear out a spare room to create a nursery. Tough decisions are made about what stays and what has to go. They collect and purchase appropriate furnishings. They seek advice. They endlessly brood over a name; about the kind of birth experience they hope for; about the joy, fears and future of this new reality. Such preparation is not meaningless. It’s about getting ready to fully receive the gift of the child who is coming.
When I started to attend to the Advent season, I was surprised at the themes present in the ancient writings. Traditionally, Advent was not the giddy season of festive parties and garish décor we have come to know. The more rooted Advent tradition was a preparation for the return of Christ, not a mere preparation for Christmas celebrations. Indeed, there was an element of festive joy, but it was also a sober season (almost Lent-ish) that began with sustained attention to our deepest longings and the assumptions, valid or vain, which those longings might indicate. It was a time of penitent reflection about the many inordinate attachments and affections we have given ourselves to – those ill-discerned commitments that prevent us from fully attaching to Christ.
Advent was a season to reflect on the rich spiritual metaphor of motherhood, or spousal maternity, which reveals the deepest truth about the mystery of the human person: that we were created to receive and house heaven in our womb, and bear it forth for the sake of the world. The Christ child doesn’t merely come to us but through us.
Advent was also a time to reflect on the ancient names of Christ – Emmanuel! Wisdom! Dayspring! Majestic Lord! Root! Key! Desire of the Nations! – as memorialized in the tradition of the O Antiphons.
Finally, it was a time to reflect on the upside-down nature of this astonishing kingdom of God that is breaking in on our desperate history, as suggested by the ancient oracles of Isaiah.
Upon reflection, one realizes that Advent is a robust and demanding spiritual season. Easy, triumphant declarations like “Jesus is the reason for the season!” or campaigns to “Keep Christ in Christmas” will not do. We are invited to much more than that. We are encouraged to attend deeply to the pulse of this season, to enter into it quietly, penitently, patiently and expectantly, allowing it to penetrate and resound in the fecund depths of our souls.
May it be done as you have said!
Plant your seed in me, O God.
Not the seed of human life,
but your everlasting Word.
For we are all just like the grass,
and our glory’s like the flower.
But the grasses wither, and flowers fade.
Yet your Word, O Lord… it stands forever!
–From “May It Be Done” by Steve Bell. Listen to the full song at Advent Chapter One.
Steve Bell is a singer and a storyteller. His lifelong pursuit of the rich traditions of the church has awarded him a voice in the contemporary recovery of relevant formational practices for personal and corporate Christian spirituality. He lives with his wife Nanci in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory and homeland of the Métis Nation.
This reflection was originally published in Pilgrim Year: Advent (Novalis, 2018).