The arrival of Advent this year is overshadowed by the world’s violence. Distant events press in. A week ago, a young Jewish boy from a town near mine, who was studying and volunteering in Israel, was killed by a Palestinian gunman in the West Bank after he had brought food to Israeli soldiers. I wrote a note to a friend in that community, assuming he may have known the family.
“They are our closest friends,” he responded. “It is heartbreaking.”
How little has changed in 2,000 years. Piety and good works don’t save us from violence. Quite the opposite it seems, these days.
As I climb into my attic and poke around for the purple and pink candles to make my Advent wreath, I can’t help but recall a more innocent time in my own home not so very long ago. Advent was the time for concocting ornaments and playing carols while we worked. It was the season of the “Jesus Box;” each day we’d put into it a piece of paper on which we’d written a small deed of kindness we’d done for another. We made peanut butter pine cones for the birds, drank cocoa late in the long afternoons, read books, and strung popcorn.
All of these gestures were designed to bring a slower, more mindful pace to our days, so that when Christmas came, we would greet it with a renewed understanding of the incarnational message, “Christ is born” – the kingdom of God come among us.
“Resetting” the ordinary and seeing the holy in this season isn’t as easy as it once was. Saturated by news clips and tweets of divisiveness, how are we to find the quiet in which we might discover our own navigational stars of hope? The shelter of mere tranquility has collapsed for many of us. If we are totally honest, we are wandering in a dark as deep as that of Mary, Joseph, and the Magi, harried by the same environment of conflict and uncertainty.
But maybe this is the point. Perhaps Advent is actually about accepting reality as it is, and surrendering our small certainties in order to hear a different message than the one we read in the news.
In 1944, the German Jesuit priest, the Rev. Alfred Delp, imprisoned by the Nazis and writing from prison in Berlin, wondered whether he would live to see the fourth Advent candle lit on his own wreath. All the same, he took the trouble to light the first one. Advent, he wrote, even in the darkest of times, is still our time to “review our lives and take a sober look at things because reality is still the place where true joy grows and where we build things that can support a load.”
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