We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
– T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”
photo by Sweet Bee Photography
Last year, I started writing this post. But life swallowed me up and my job was difficult and my husband started working at a restaurant, and suddenly our life was stretched too thin for me to think real words anymore.
I was having a discussion with a friend (who is now a new sister!) and she asked me something or other about how I felt about Christmas coming. I paused. I felt strange answering her question honestly, because she probably expected something about how happy I felt about decorating or making Christmas desserts, or how good it would be to spend the holiday with family. But I was weary and emotionally drained, and I told her that I liked the season of Advent, anticipating Christmas, because it is a penitential season. I said that I always feel more like fasting than feasting while I wait for Christmas.
She asked me to explain what I meant and got me thinking on this. Since I still feel this way a year later, returning to the Advent season, I think I will return and finish my thought.
Advent is a season of anticipating God’s arrival in the flesh, of waiting and watching. It is much like Lent in this yearning and anticipation. But Lent is a time when Jesus was on earth with his disciples, and I feel it’s more appropriate to be meditating on mortality, penitence, and abstinence during the time leading up to the incarnation, while we prepare for his arrival. The time leading up to Jesus’ birth was a time of silence among the prophets, and the Spirit had left the temple, I’m told. Everything was centered on keeping the feasts and waiting for the Messiah, not unlike the Jews still do today. There was an absence of God’s presence among his people.
Likewise, during Advent, we wait and we watch. We hunger for the coming of Christ the baby like we hunger for heaven or for his eventual return, because it parallels that scene so well–the common yearning for God with us. We speak of heaven: Jesus is coming. But not yet. Reflect and watch and pray.
Advent is a picture of where we are now, everyday. We don’t find Jesus in the plenty–though we can. Instead, he more often comes to us in the silence, in the waiting. We anticipate him and grow tired. But then he comes and finds us in the aches and pains and weariness.
And then he dies. And Easter has so much power and might and life and joy, but we know the promise of heaven best in Jesus incarnate. So we wait for the “second death” when we live with him, like the Eliot poem says.
The magi saw the Christ, they rejoice, and then they go home, tired and weary. And they wait for death with quiet reverence and anticipation of the promise fulfilled in death by the baby king. And like them, we wait for his arrival at Christmas just as we wait for death to unite us with him in the flesh.
This Advent (which starts on Sunday), I’m going to be meditating on the incarnation and on mortality. I’m going to be choosing something to fast from in the spirit of Lent, and I will break my fast at Epiphany in the spirit of the resurrection promise made in the incarnation of Christ. Join me?
1 thought on “Penitential Advent”
Growing up, we never celebrated Advent. I can’t remember it ever being mentioned in church or at home — my first exposure to it was as an 18-year-old working in a Christian bookstore. I’ve always been curious about it, and am looking forward to reading your meditations despite my current doubts and fears.
Also, if you have Spotify, you should check out the Christmas CD “Precious Child.” It seems to fit the tone and emotion that you have about Advent.