The first week of Advent can't help but bring a sense of anticipation for the joyful season to come. "The people in darkness have seen a great light." For me December is an invitation to look up at the sky searching for the star that leads wise men to Bethlehem. When I was a child I always gave up something during Advent, something I liked. It was a reminder of this time of waiting with the anticipation of enjoying it again when the feasting time arrived.
As I write this, December is already past and I realize my Advent would have been better if I had resurrected that child's habit and given up something. But I didn't. Why, I wonder? It is easier not to, I guess, despite there being lots to choose from: desserts, coffee (even cream in my coffee), wine, between meal snacks. Oh, the litany makes me ashamed to be such a slacker. Will I enjoy the feast as much when I ignored the fast? Perhaps I can excuse myself by saying I did something positive. The choices there are many as well: ten minutes of daily spiritual reading, adding some extra prayers to the daily regimen, extending the weekly holy hour by ten minutes, adding a special prayer every day for the Poor Souls in Purgatory who wait in anticipation of heaven? Alas, no, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Aside from lighting our Advent wreath and saying evening prayer from the Magnificat Missal, there is little change in our daily regimen.
I once read in Pope John XXIII's autobiography that he reached old age and lamented that he thought by now he should have been a saint. How well I can relate to that. Well, Pope John is Blessed now, but I feel like the red queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass who runs and runs just to stay in the same place. But, alas, I'm running a lot slower these days and feel like I'm losing ground. It is an invitation to humility.
Nevertheless, the Christ child comes to me at Christmas anyway -- despite my spiritual laziness. The festive scene grows gradually as I put out the decorations around the house: always first the creche with Jesus hidden until Christmas eve, then the star on the front of the house, the nativity banner near the mailbox, the wreath on the door, the table decorations, the Christmas cards spreading across the curtain valences, and last, the Christmas tree. All the traditions and memories of Christmases past impart a warm glow even though we miss the joy of doing it with young children. How does one keep that sense of wonder in old age? I need to put on the heart of the child? It's not easy in a world filled with evil and ugliness. But that, in itself, is a reminder to look for the goodness and beauty around us. There is never a time so evil, St. Thomas More said, that a good man cannot live in it.
And so we prepare for the celebration to come. It culminates in Christmas eve Mass. What used to be at midnight is now at 10:30 p.m. For our parish, perhaps it's a recognition that so many in the congregation are retired and older. Waiting until midnight would be hard for many and, I confess, I'm among them. But when I remember those midnight Masses of childhood, I feel a little twinge of regret that they are gone. I remember coming out of church after the final blessing and looking up at a clear winter sky filled with shining stars. I could almost see the angels appearing to the shepherds to sing "Hosannah in the highest! Peace on earth to men of good will." And going home there was always one present to unwrap before bed. Already, the celebration had begun.
Larry and I return from our Christmas eve celebration with our children and grandchildren to pray our rosary before Mass in the brightly lit, newly decorated church. The Advent wreath in front of the altar is gone, replaced by the stable and the familiar figures of the Holy Family and the shepherds and the animals. The scene always brings a smile to my face and, now that we live in the country, the smell of the animals and fresh hay is easy to imagine as well. We sing carols before Mass and enter into the season of Christmas as Father processes in with four well-scrubbed altar boys and our deacon-to-be. The dark purple vestments have been replaced with the glorious gold and white of this joyful night. We sing a new Gloria, badly I'm sorry to say, but somehow I imagine it pleases Jesus to hear us try. And it will be better next year. There is always another opportunity.
For a pilgrim, Christmas reminds us of arriving at the destination, not the final destination, of course; that will only come on the last day, but an interim stop for rest and rejoicing. And so we do. What a wonderful Church that gives us twelve days of Christmas in which to celebrate. We spend it with many special events and visits: a dinner party with friends, the table set with the good china and silver, birthday celebrations for our December grandchildren, New Year's eve spent with two little princesses arrayed in finery from the dressup box and dancing away the old year before collapsing and being put to bed before midnight. We arrive at the last days of the season too soon. The three wise men arrive on January 6th bearing their gifts for the newborn king although liturgically we won't celebrate it until Sunday Mass. The beginning of Ordinary Time nears. It is a bittersweet moment as the decorations come down and we return to the daily norm. But would the celebration be so filled with joy if it wasn't set against the backdrop of normal life? I don't think so. Most of the pilgrimage is the journey. It has its own special delights, but the anticipation of stopping to celebrate is one of them.