Maybe Advent is God’s special season of surprises


Q. Every year when Advent comes around, I don’t seem to feel ready for it. Am I alone in feeling this way?

A. How do you know that Christmas is coming?

Not by the calendar, but in your heart?

When I was a child, my mother’s bringing out the large cardboard box of Christmas decorations signaled the arrival of the Advent season. She and I would unpack the box item by item.

There were the small white plastic reindeer which we would eventually discard but which now fetch a decent price at antique stores. I wish I still had them so that I could sell them and get some money.

There was the small yule log with fake greens and real pine cones and red candles that looked a hundred years old, and the ceramic choir boys that I would arrange in an orderly but silent procession on the knick-knack shelf.

My Franciscan aunts, Sisters Mary Loyola and Mary Rose, would often send me a new Advent calendar to mark the days until Christmas. I still have a sizeable collection of such calendars and use a different one every year.

I especially like the one depicting a New Mexican village, with Spanish words under some of the numbered windows.

There was such a pleasant sense of familiarity and security and continuity in the displaying of these decorations that gave me a foretaste of the Christmas joy to come. I still have such feelings as I unpack my Christmas decorations and place them in my suite in St. Patrick Hall at St. John’s University and throughout the best sophomore floors there — mine.

Feel your roots

Maybe if you are like me, you need and savor and treasure the revered and familiar Scripture texts and songs and rituals of Advent.

There’s nothing wrong with this, as Benedictine Brother Anselm Gruen reminds us in a new book on the Advent/Christmas season: “When you sing an Advent song or sit near the Advent wreath, you get a sense of your roots. Maybe you have memories of your parents and grandparents sitting around the Advent wreath and what power they garnered from the rituals surrounding it. When you are quiet, listen within to images of your childhood. It is not so much a matter of escaping into the nostalgia of childhood, but rather, of searching for roots that supported you in childhood” (“A Time of Fulfillment: Spiritual Reflections for Advent and Christmas,” translated by Benedictine Father Mark Thamert, Liturgical Press, 2013). pp. 38-39.

Yet every year it seems that Advent sneaks up on me.

Somehow I never feel completely ready for its beginning or as ready as I think I should be for the liturgical year to begin again.

But maybe that’s all right.

For Advent may just be God’s special season of surprises, right from the beginning.

Maybe — just maybe — the most significant thing about these weeks of Advent may not be what is familiar and comfortable, but what is unexpected and challenging: some person or event or situation in which God will shake us out of our complacency and reveal to us more of the divine plan that we glimpse in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, which someone has declared to be a greater miracle than his resurrection.

And this may mean foregoing some revered or treasured Advent ritual or activity in order to do something new that God asks of us, maybe something difficult or uncomfortable.

Heed Gospel messages

Maybe that’s why we need the vigilance that Jesus commands in the Gospel. Advent invites us to ask God to help us put aside whatever obstacles prevent us from recognizing God’s work in our lives and in our world.

What are some of these obstacles? The “anxieties of daily life” (Luke 21:34) that can harden our hearts.

Our “anxieties of daily life” can monopolize our time and energy so that we lose sight of God’s plans and see only our own plans.

And the truth is that our plans can contain a lot of selfishness and self-seeking. Don’t we spend a lot of time and energy trying to remake other people and maybe our community in our own image, according to our own liking and likeness?

Advent reminds us that we are to be energetic servants of God’s plans for this world, not our own, because we have been made part of God’s saving plan in Christ, the one who came and will come again.

And that all-embracing divine plan opens us to God’s plans for each of us that are so much greater than we can imagine, but which remain ours to accept or reject throughout our lives, at all the stages of our lives.

We can get so preoccupied with daily activities, doing even good things from morning till night, that we become unable to welcome others into our lives and perhaps not even able to welcome God, the God who just might come to us in unexpected ways.

Our daily cares, whatever they are, always seem to get our attention because they always seem to be staring us in the face, whereas the realities of the spiritual life, of prayer and love, compassion and forgiveness, are not always foremost in our thoughts.

We may get things done, even lots of good works, in timely and careful fashion, but we may lose our hearts in the doing.

This is why we need to “stay awake” (Matthew 24:42).

Wakefulness gives us an image of someone who is bright and aware and attentive, who knows how to respond to God and others in every situation, at all times, even in surprising ways.

Advent is the season when we prepare to welcome Christ in our Christmas celebration and at the end of time. Christ is God become human, so that humankind could once again be one with God and each other.

Advent is a time to pray and work for ever greater wakefulness in our life with God and with one another.

Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at mkwatera@csbsju.edu or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015. Father Michael enjoys giving workshops and presentations on liturgical topics to parish groups. Reach him at the email or postal addresses listed here.