Here's my favorite thing about Christmas: Advent.
As a season, it has a lot to recommend it. It's shorter than Lent. It does not involve presents, cookies, or inflated expectations. There's not much decorating, except for a wreath and some pink and purple candles.
I like Advent because the idea of preparation appeals to me. The getting-ready part is full of possibility, like those Advent calendars with all the little doors to open, all those numbered days still left to mend your ways and clean house and shape up for the Big Event.
In my Catholic-school childhood, preparation meant Extreme Makeover, Spiritual Edition. The first week of Advent marked the beginning of a new school "practice," announced with great solemnity and observed with sporadic bursts of fervor. The practice might be extraordinary courtesy, or perfect silence at the appointed times, or frequent, unrewarded acts of kindness. Success was self-reported: For each observance, you pinned a construction paper candle on the bulletin board wreath, or added a star to the night sky in the poster-painted mural of Bethlehem. These homely, visible signs of effort gave shape to the days of waiting.
Advent sanctifies waiting. It's a lost art here in the 21st century, where here-and-now is the only time that seems to count and instant gratification is considered a birthright. This brief procession of December days reminds us that waiting is not always about foot-tapping, finger-drumming boredom. It can also be a time of vigil.
I am struck by the vigils in progress all around me: parents awaiting the holiday return of distant children; military families counting the hours until the plane lands, the beloved appears, the leave begins. I think of the old school friend whose charmed life I had long observed from afar, marveling at her exotic travels, designer wardrobe, beach houses and penthouses. We caught up this fall at our class reunion. Her eyes filled with tears as she told me about her daughter, whose addiction has ravaged the family. She's in treatment again, my friend said. We're waiting to see if it works this time.
Advent sanctifies watching. I think of another friend, tending her 104-year-old mother. Sometimes I wonder why my mother is still here, she tells me. And then I watch her kiss the hand of her caregiver, and I understand. She is here to teach me about grace. I watch the dawn arrive in extravagant streaks of azure and coral and watch the sun set, blood red on these early winter evenings. I open the back door and look up at the stars, 10 million light years away and yet visible in the clear night sky. The large and brilliant one that always appears in December is back, keeping its own vigil. I watch and wonder and long for something I cannot name.
Advent sanctifies longing. The hymns and antiphons of the season speak of it: Maranatha. Come, do not delay. In the worldly world, the longing comes wrapped in wish lists and gift cards and layaway plans. But getting and spending only goes so far. After the perfect gifts are chosen and paid for and wrapped, after the tree is trimmed and the stockings overflow, the void remains.
I dig into my purse and put a ten spot in the Salvation Army kettle; I drop off toys for needy children and buy poinsettias for church and wonder if it's enough. What would be enough?
Light your candles quietly, whatever candles you may possess, wrote Alfred Delp, a German priest executed by the Nazis.
So I light my candles. I add a star to the night sky of my own interior mural. And then, in keeping with the season, I watch. I wait.