What would it be like to awaken on Christmas morning and feel like your soul has been sufficiently prepared to celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God?
I can't say I know what that feels like yet. I've been better prepared some years than others, but overall, I've experienced the opposite of that well-preparedness too many times. Once most Christmases have come and gone, even though I've been mindful that an inescapable reminder of Jesus' birth is at the core of all of the hubbub, I've still had a sense that I missed the point of it all. More than once, I've felt like all of the parties, presents, decorations, movies, and cookies have ended up being kind of like hosting a celebration for someone and then forgetting to ever speak to the honoree at the actual event. Sometime during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, I end up wanting to utter a prayer along the lines of, "Sorry I missed you at the party we threw for you last week." Today I am realizing that if go about my preparation in the same way as usual this year, I will end up needing to say that prayer again.
I want this year to be different. By the time that we sing "Silent Night" in church on Christmas Eve, I want to be able to let the events of that holy night take their full intended effect upon how I choose to live each day. I want to look at my preschool-age children differently and marvel at the fact that God saw it fit to become one of them. I want to be attentive to God and those around me, staying calm and quiet enough to be able to block out the excess noise and distractions in order to love well anyone with whom I come into contact.
I guess what I want most of all is joy. I can look back at the way I have celebrated Christmas in the past, and while things have been fun, this year I'm less interested in more of the same and more interested in cultivating joy, a pervasive sense of well-being(1), because of the fact that the Lord has come and he indeed does rule the world with truth and grace.
I want to be better prepared for Christmas this year, but according to Christian tradition there's a very counter-cultural irony here: we will be better prepared for the Christmas season if we have the discipline to wait until it arrives, and it isn't here yet. It will be an aid to anyone's faith to realize that we have another way of marking time. We've been given a calendar by centuries of people who have sought to follow Christ closely, and for the purpose of developing our lives with God, I've come to find it to be a much more trustworthy way of looking at the year than unconsciously judging the beginning and end of Christmas by what happens in the stores and on TV. In contrast to the culture around us (where I saw Christmas items on display in early October and the season will be over by December 26, at the latest), this traditional Christian calendar insists: It isn't yet Christmas. It's Advent.
I believe that the more attention we pay to that, the better chance we give ourselves to have the kind of deeply good Christmas we really want. In other words, if I want to sing "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" for all their worth in church on Christmas Eve, I would be wise to spend the weeks between now and then letting "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" fill my mind.
As it did to me several years ago, it may come as a surprise to you that according to this traditional Christian way of marking the year, Advent isn't Christmas. Advent prepares us for Christmas (all twelve days of it–not just one–from December 25 until January 5), but it does so indirectly. It prepares us by not yet focusing on the angels, shepherds, and the manger in Bethlehem. Instead, our attention is directed toward Israel's past longing for the Messiah to come, Christians' future hope that Christ will come again, and the implications of both of these on how we live today in light of Jesus' teaching that he will come to us and make his home in us.
Advent is characterized by words like waiting, longing, standing firm, watching, readiness, and staying awake. It puts us among the centuries of God's people who have cried, "How long, O Lord?" If we can remain in this ready, longing, watchful waiting, we will be prepared to recognize and celebrate Christ's coming.
During the coming weeks, we'll seek to prepare our souls for the joy of Christmas by waiting in expectant anticipation. Tomorrow, we'll look at what it means to wait on God, and how we go about doing so.
A Note on the Prayers: Each day's reflection will include traditional Christian prayers. Normally, there will be two: a prayer for the day and a prayer for the week. The cycle of the prayers for the day will repeat each week, and part of the goodness of them is that they help us to enter into a weekly rhythm–for example, by being mindful of the resurrection on each Sunday. The prayers for the week emphasize the themes of the traditional scripture passages for that week of Advent. These are intentionally repetitive–by the third or fourth time that we pray them, we're likely to be more engaged with God through what they say than if we had only scanned over them one time.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, you make us glad with the weekly remembrance of the glorious resurrection of your Son our Lord: Give us this day such blessing through our worship of you, that the week to come may be spent in your favor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
*From The Book of Common Prayer, Public Domain (1) Dallas Willard's definition of joy