Pay Attention. Keep Watch. A Post for Advent.

This is my first year observing Advent. To be honest, in the past I only had a rather vague idea of what it was all about. I associated it with the Advent calendars we had in my family growing up (only one each year, which meant that if you had six siblings, you only got a chocolate every seventh evening and had to suffer the indignity of watching a sibling eat the chocolate on the other six). And I’d been to Lessons and Carols on multiple occasions. But my general impression was that Advent was just the time of excitement and fun leading up to Christmas.

I was actually surprised, then, to learn that traditionally Advent has a lot in common with Lent. It’s a penitential season, a time to be somber and thoughtful. I really like that,  and wanted to give it a try this year. It makes sense to me that you have to spend some time in the darkness if light breaking into the world is going to mean something. I ordered myself a book of Anglican Advent readings. The reviews warned me that they were bleak and depressing and would ruin your Advent, which was the exact thing to say to get me to buy the book. Sure enough, thus far they’ve had a lot to say about death and judgment. Not the cheeriest. I’m glad to have a bit of somberness, though, because I’m actually not in a very somber and thoughtful place at the moment, but more in an exuberant one. And that doesn’t actually happen for me often, so I’m wanting to enjoy it. It may turn out that this year, at least, really doing the penitential thing may have to wait until Lent.

But I have been reflecting a bit on the meaning of Advent. It’s the beginning of the new church year, and I like the feeling of having moved New Year’s up a month, and beginning the year with the coming of Christ. There are two themes I’ve been thinking about in particular. One is the idea of paying attention. I’m very drawn to the idea that simply paying attention can be a spiritual practice. Lately I’ve been reading the morning and evening prayers in a Celtic prayer book I have, and they’re quite beautiful. The liturgy always begins with this invitation: “Be still and aware of God’s presence within and all around.” Something about that speaks to me. It’s a shift in how I’ve thought about prayer; too often I’ve imagined it in terms of trying to convince God to pay attention to me, to respond to me, to interact with me. That’s been intertwined with a lot of anxiety that God was regularly keeping some distance from me because of my unworthiness. But coming at prayer with the perspective that God is already there, and what I’m trying to do is to be more aware of that divine presence, is an approach I’m finding quite meaningful. I’m trying to pay more attention.

The second theme I’ve been thinking about is that of keeping watch. Another thing I didn’t previously know about Advent is that it’s aimed at the Second Coming as well as the first. The liturgy for the first Sunday of Advent is all about Christ’s return. Truth to tell, I’m not someone who has ever really loved thinking about the Second Coming. As a kid, the narrative terrified me, and these days I maybe unfairly associate the doctrine with obsessive interest in the Book of Revelation and efforts to stockpile supplies (and often ammunition as well) in preparation for the Last Days. This Advent season, though, has at least made me ask myself what the teaching that Christ is coming back might mean to me. That was at the back of my mind this past Sunday when I heard a eucharistic liturgy at church that included this line: “Because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.” And I was really struck by that, by the possibility of contemplating the Second Coming without fear or shame. It’s kind of a new idea for me, and something I want to continue to reflect on. I feel like I keep inching closer to the possibility that in the end, this is a narrative of redemption, and not one of fear.

Have a blessed Advent, everyone.

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