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Hoping for Hope: A Meditation on Advent

Hoping for Hope: A Meditation on Advent

In 20 days, the days will start getting longer.

It feels pretty dark right now, with a bleak November casting its darkness into the holiday season. Some years it’s harder than others to believe that the light is coming again and this has been one of those years. We’d be forgiven if we temporarily forgot that the light always wins. That, in fact, the light is already winning.

sunrise

The trajectory of the earth in its orbit assures us that the days will get longer again. The sun will shine brighter, longer and warmer. The lingering cold will eventually be pushed away by light so abundant that we will forget we ever feared for its loss. We will delight, once again, in the early seedlings of spring as they push their way through still-frozen earth.

In some Christian traditions, Advent is observed in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s described as a season of waiting. But that’s not quite right. December is not just for waiting, it’s for longing.

It’s for reaching towards a hope we’d almost stopped believing in. It’s for reminding ourselves that the light comes back, that love can’t be stopped, that the arc of the universe bends towards justice and that even when things seems bleak, hope is hovering just over the horizon.

Sometimes, when the darkness comes too early and stays too late, we cannot find it in ourselves to hope for the light itself. We have to instead hope for the hope. That’s the best way I can describe longing–hoping for the hope. Holding on to the shred of a ray of light, of a baby born in a manger, of experiences of Love that are so intense that we have dared to claim that God walked among us.

So if this year the tinsel looks like empty promises, or the Christmas lights gleam like shallow smiles, then I will not tell you to have hope. I will tell you instead to have longing. Long for the song of the angels to return. Long for all the childish dreams you gave up long ago, of the fairy magic of Christmas to illuminate dark corners. Long for the crazy words of biblical prophets, for nonsense about Messiahs and Kingdoms of God and wolves lying with lambs on this very earth. Long for the things we sing in hymns on Sunday but can’t quite believe on Monday morning.

Long for these things because longing is the work of preparing the soul for hope.

hope-is-the-thing-with-wings

If “hope is the thing with feathers,” then longing is the work of building a nest. It is the work of pulling the thin threads of promise together with the brittle sticks of despair so that, in time, hope can take residence again.

And this is where we have to be clear that Advent is not for waiting. It’s not for wait-and-see, or hope-for-the-best. It is for crying out with the Psalmist, “I stretch out my hands to You; My soul longs for You, as a parched land.”

March will come, metaphorically and in real time. It will come with a promise of spring but also with its fierce storms and unpredictable winds. And we will be there, ready to do the work of hope then because we have done the work of Advent now. 

So if your heart is heavy this season, whatever the reason, then let it be heavy. Don’t try to force hope to take up residence too soon–false hope is flighty and will leave when you need it most. Instead, use this time to reach deep into the heavyness. In that depth, you will find longing and that will be your way forward.

 

The New Way I’m Taming Christmas Mayhem

The New Way I’m Taming Christmas Mayhem

Taming Christmas Mayhem

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

Ahhh…the time of year when the stores start pushing Christmas and we resist with all our might, grumbling about how we can’t find the cranberry sauce because the Christmas decorations are in the way.  A few days before Halloween, I thought I heard the opening notes to “Last Christmas” come on a store’s radio and I swore I would yell at someone.  (It wasn’t.  It was just another song by “Wham!”  Apparently they all sound the same.)  Judging by the number of Facebook and Twitter conversations, I know others are feeling the frustration, too.  We all love Christmas, of course we do.  Still, we have a natural inclination to not see it pushed back into October.

Xmas post before December

I think this comes from a few things:

  1. Time moves quickly enough without us hurrying it along.     Just because we love Christmas doesn’t mean that we want to skip over October and November.  We love those months, too, even if they aren’t as shiny and sparkly.  For me, October is one month where I really get to pull back and celebrate the holy ordinary: the fall leaves, the crisp weather, the gentle rhythm that sets in when the days get shorter.  Plus, many of us who love Christmas love all the other holidays.  Halloween brings back the forbidden thrill of going house to house after dark, and the fun of imagining who we’re going to be.  And Thanksgiving…an entire holiday devoted to nothing but gratitude and that first silky, spicy bite of pumpkin pie.  Love Christmas as we do, we’re not quite willing to skip over the other things to get there.
  2. We’re leery of being marketed at. There’s one reason and one reason only that Christmas decorations start appearing in stores mid-October.  It sells stuff.  This year, my dollar store had cookie tins for sale in August.  And I bought them.  Why?  Because if I wait, I will be searching high and low for them come cookie exchange time.  Still, I hated caving into the pressure, like I was being duped into participating in an evil consumerist plot.  I was certain that some marketing genius was sitting in the store, eyeing me with derision and cackling, “our little plan worked.  Cookie tins in August…we shall rule the world. Hahaha”
  3. We’re trying to overcome some of the pressure to have the “perfect Christmas.” Christmas was not always celebrated for a month.  People used to put their trees up on December 24.  They might observe the traditional twelve days of Christmas, until Epiphany on January 6.  They’d give a simple gift or two and Santa might drop off an orange and a penny.  This wasn’t that long ago.  When I compare that to our frantic push to create Rockwell-worthy moments of cookie baking, ginger-bread house building and cocktail parties for at least a month, I’m overwhelmed, as many of us are.  Resisting the urge to start Christmas earlier and earlier is one way that we’re trying to simplify the whole experience.  With this small act, we’re resist the push toward a perfectionism that would take months of planning.

With every bit of pressure we feel to push Christmas into fall, we lean in with equal resistance. 

This year’s $3.00 cookie tin purchase was the first time I can ever remember buying something Christmas-y before Thanksgiving.  I close my eyes to the lure of sparkling ornaments until the day after Thanksgiving, when I launch into all-Christmas, all-the-time, until January.  So it’s with a certain amount of trepidation that I announce a complete switch in attitude.  This year, I’m doing my Christmas shopping this week.  Yes, right after Halloween.  Oddly enough, I’m doing it for all the reasons that I used to avoid shopping early.  I want to enjoy the season, simplify the holidays, relish every minute of the fall holidays and resist the urge to have “the perfect Christmas.”  I want my dance through the season to be a gentle waltz, not a frantic macarena with hands and legs barely keeping up to the frenzy of the music.

A member of my incredible moms’ group shared this article from Catholic Sistas a couple weeks ago.  The author shares her strategy for Christmas shopping, including her timeline.  She gets it done before Advent.  (If you’re not a church person, or not part of a tradition that celebrates Advent, it almost always starts the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  For all practical purposes, this means finishing shopping before leaving for that Thanksgiving trip.)  By tackling her shopping early, this mom writes, she’s freed up to focus on the religious celebrations of the season rather than feeling overwhelmed by the combination of extra shopping, extra school events, extra church events and extra family events.  And, I might add, the extra pressure to stay spiritually grounded/non-consumerist/family focused in the midst of all that!

I’ve been playing with her idea.  I was initially resistant because:

  1. I don’t want to cave to the consumeristic pressures and start shopping early. (See #2 above.)
  2. I actually enjoy the bustle of Christmas shopping. I can hear the chorus to “Silver Bells in my head as I type this.  I like to park the car in a cute little downtown area and wander from store to store with a peppermint mocha in my hand.  It it’s snowing just slightly, that’s even better.  I enjoy the cheer, the lights, the decorations and the Salvation Army Santa’s cheery “Merry Christmas!”
  3. I like to let things get a little closer to Christmas so that I can see what people want/need. This is the main reason I don’t shop throughout the year, as many highly organized people recommend.

Gradually, though, the appeal of starting the holiday season with my shopping done won me over.  When I sat down with my husband to talk about Christmas present ideas, before Halloween, he was surprisingly enthusiastic about the idea of getting the shopping done sooner rather than later.  Some points he made:

  1. The Christmas shopping experience isn’t always a fun stroll from store to store. Most of the time it’s a high-paced hustle around the mall.  The mocha gets spilled, children are crying in aisle 5, the strain of saying “Merry Christmas” 500 times an hour is wearing on the Salvation Army Santas and “Last Christmas” will be played by every artist who ever covered it.  (True story: one of the first songs my daughter knew by heart was “Last Christmas.”  She was 3.  That’s how often this song comes on the radio.)
  2. I can still enjoy the Hallmark movie shopping experience. Some day during the Christmas season, I can get dressed in an adorable hat and boots, hit the coffee shop and then take a lovely stroll.  Even better, I can do this without worrying about carrying shopping bags.
  3. I’m more likely to enjoy the hunt. Taking the time to shop now, instead of in December, means I can make a thoughtful choice for even the hard-to-shop-for people (ahem, all the men in my family) instead of a muttering about how hard they are to shop for and wishing I could settle for a bottle of perfume.
  4. I love packages under the tree. I have a standing rule that anything purchased after Thanksgiving gets wrapped and put under the tree.    I’ve also been known to wrap empty boxes when we put our tree up, just to get the sparkly present effect sooner.  Now I can have actual presents, which cuts down on the January clean-up.
  5. I’d really like to get to mid-December without wondering “what happened?”

There is one concern that is still valid: I’ll have to resist buying additional presents as Christmas gets closer.  That happens often enough as it is.  It usually goes like this, “Oh, I know I already have a present for so-and-so but this is perfect for her!  She can have both.”  Repeat that for a couple members of our huge family, add in a friend or two, and it’s a recipe for starting 2016 completely broke.  That’s just going to have to come down to willpower.  So I’m making a public commitment that once shopping is done, it’s done.  Those extra wonderful things I find along the way will have to wait for birthday presents in 2016.  🙂