Will this be a holiday or a holy day?
The Bishop posed the question after having asked us How many of you have bought at least one Christmas present? Dozens of hands went up. The rest were prevaricating.
Then he posed the alternate question, to which he asked no show of hands. How many of you have a plan to prepare for the coming of our Saviour, the Incarnation of Christ, that event in history that makes all the eternal difference in the world to you and me?
Darn! I could have raised my hand, and here I was deprived of the opportunity and forced into humility by the wisdom of the Bishop.
But the fact of the matter is that I do have a plan, have for years, It began with an Episcopal rector who was adamant--nay, even Grinch-like--in his determination not to celebrate Christmas until Christmas. I learned the rhythms of careful, deliberate preparation, and of separating myself from the culture at large. It is the best Advent present I ever received, and I cherish it even now.
The creche in the church, and in our home, went up one small piece at a a time. First, a stable. A week later, animals. Then a herald angel. At the beginning of the last week, Mary and Joseph. After midnight mass, the children got to place the baby Jesus in the manger, and add the shepherds. The wise men began their trek from the distant rooms of the house, moved forward day be day by the children to arrive on Epiphany Eve. The custom, curious to visitors to the house prompted questions and answers. Every move was made with stories and prayers, often tailored to a child’s enthusiasm and attention. The very act of stretching out the assembly of the Holy Family made us reflective and patient. We must, after all, learn patience because God is so very patient with us.
It wasn’t long before I started avoiding the malls because I didn’t want to hear Christmas music before Christmas. I assembled a fine collection of Advent music that played throughout the house until December 24, and I bought as many presents as I could mail order. These days I thank God for iTunes and the Internet--I can almost totally avoid being assaulted by inane versions of Silent Night and that wretched Drummer Boy until the Day actually arrives. Cleaning my ears of distracting music opened them for the messages and music of Advent, and I learned the real meaning of the old adage: he who sings, prays twice. I began to listen to the reality of our salvation in music the rest of the world forgets--a savior is coming. Not just pretty lyrics, a statement of faith, real faith, once that of Israel, now my own. My sin. My sorrow. The prophets who speak to me. And the unspeakable joy that God does, indeed have a plan and it involves my redemption.
The tree posed a problem, though. Leave it until December 24th and the pickings are slim. Besides, the kids and the culture demand trees, and anyone who ever saw my husband putting lights on the family evergreen would have no doubt that the experience is penitential. For years, we just accepted this as the limit of our ability to square the season with the culture. We even put up a joking sign advertising the trees, wreaths, and nutcrackers as “Advent decorations.” The more I came to appreciate the wisdom of the liturgical calendar, the less the rationalization satisfied. Having learned the reason for Advent, the tree was a jarring note in my preparation, but as a tradition it was hard to lose.
Of late, we’ve hit on the perfect compromise. We string the tree with white lights, then purple and separate strands of multicolored bulbs. We then decorate entirely in purple ornaments, lighting the purple lights for Advent. Christmas Eve, off come the purple ornaments, and on go the traditional Christmas baubles, and the colored lights are lit. The purple tree gives opportunity to witness about the importance of Advent to visitors to our home and indulges the festive part of my soul while honoring a tradition of many years. And after all, we’re getting ready for a birth. What mother leaves painting the nursery until the night before? We listen to Lessons and Carols as we change out one season for another in our living room. It marks the time well.
But the real changes aren’t in fixture and customs. They come in the heart, trained into a new way of thinking by disrupting the old patterns of selfishness. The new, improved, Catholic me, trained by months or meditating on the nativity in the course of praying the rosary finds herself plunged even deeper into the miraculous indulgent, extravagant love that is the reason we celebrate. Imagine, God become man (yes: man. Not generic human--MAN). And not just man, but an infant, helpless, tiny, vulnerable, the All-powerful left powerless and dependent on His creatures. The Creator of the Universe, birthed into a stable, suckled at a human breast, subject to the ills and wills and ill wills of mankind. A remarkable God, unlike any other humankind had ever imagined. What must it have been like for God to experience in human nature so fully that which He created? What must it have been like for Mary to hold her Creator in her arms? There is not enough time in a life, nor rosaries enough to pray, to begin to understand that. Time there is, however, to rejoice in it, in the God who brought it all to be.
A God who is patient enough to wait out generations on generations (count them up--they are in the readings...) until the time was right to enter human time, incarnate. A God who is, after that cataclysm, patient enough to wait out 30 years before taking His message to the world. A God incarnate of a woman who, free from the sins that bind you and me, could say yes fully and completely to a plan she had no control over and that would rend her very heart by its overwhelming sorrow. A God who would do all this if I were the only one in the world to do it for. A woman who would have said yes, just for me.
I have a plan, a plan of little things and small changes and deliberate choices that mirror the quiet way in which God entered the word, in hopes that they will help me to enter into Him. I rise early to read the morning office by the light of a purple tree and the purple candles in a wreath. I turn off the radio and CD in the car and spend my time with Mary as I drive in to work. I choose not to be rushed. What is done is done and what is not is not. As I go about my seasonal tasks, I pray for those I cook for, write to, shop for, those I see in line, those who wait on me, those I work with, those in foul tempers, those who cut me off in traffic. I save my Christmas cards to make intercessions for the senders throughout the year. I look at the year-end savings on my grocery tab and write a check to feed the poor, and throw in a little extra. Little things. Small beginnings. But God likes small things, He showed us as much on Christmas Day.
It is not enough, it can never really be enough. But it reminds me, daily, of the extravagant gift I am waiting for, living for, anticipating with every fiber of my being. And when I go to mass on Christmas morning, surrounded by gathered family, may I begin to appreciate what a gift it is I have received because God chose a particular moment in time to show us the depth and breadth of His love by entering the world so quietly, and according to plan.