The odd thing about Advent (I realize after have gone through forty-some of them) is that it’s a combination of the thrillingly unknown and the utterly predictable. It’s as exciting as the little paper doors and windows that our children open each day in the new Advent calendar; it’s as known and familiar as the words to the Advent songs that we can easily sing from memory. And somewhere in between these two extremes lies the meaning of Advent, its significance for us.
Advent is a season on the church calendar. It’s a specific period of time through which we must pass before we reach Christmas. It’s there for a reason. In times past, Christians fasted through Advent the way they fasted through Lent (in the Orthodox church this is still the case) because the church recognized that we need long preparatory periods in order to fully understand the major feasts. Advent, with its fresh newness and its comfortable sameness, is something we need to pass through. Why?
In my mind, these two aspects of Advent are like the front and back doors of the same house. Say it’s your house, and it’s during the weeks before Christmas. The front door is the door you decorate for the holidays. You’ve hung out a wreath, maybe you’ve strung up some Christmas lights. When Christmas comes your guests will enter through this door. They’ll be smiling, bearing gifts, maybe food, and you’ll open the door to welcome them. Who’s coming this year? Some of the people who come to your door may be invited; some may show up unexpected and surprise you. There may even be old friends who you haven’t seen for years. Christmas is that kind of event; it’s the time for visiting, for surprises.
Advent literally means the arrival of someone who is awaited. It’s a happy linguistic accident that advent and adventure are sister words in English, because it’s easy to see the adventure in waiting for the unknown. We are standing at the front door of our house and waiting for the arrival of Christ, and this always makes us happy because we know that Christ came to save us. We know how the story will end. We know that the church will be established and that the saints will be victorious. In fact, we know this so well that it tends to take the adventure out of Advent.
But during the first Advent, of course, the adventure was there in all its terrifying, harsh, bewildering reality. Mary was visited by an angel and waited for her baby to be born, not knowing what kind of life her son would lead or what kind of an impact it would have on her. The pregnancy burst in upon her and imposed a new direction on her life. All she knew was that she was bearing the Messiah, the Long-Awaited One. The rest was pure adventure.
I thought about this aspect of Advent a great deal in the early spring of 1993, when I went through a short pregnancy of my own. It lasted ten weeks and ended abruptly in miscarriage. It was not a planned pregnancy and our children (most of them teenagers) were both excited and embarrassed. (Gee, this is great. But really, Mom, don’t you think you’re a little — old?). As soon as the presence of a new baby became an established fact we began to talk about how we could fit another person into the family. We have little room in our small house for another child. Where would he sleep? I am running a translating and editing business from our home which accounts for a large share of the family income. How would I continue working? As the weeks passed we all realized that life as we knew it would never be the same. But in what way? Who could know?
As we continued on with the pregnancy some interesting things happened. We found that we were touching lives in a way we may never have done before. A dear friend, whose partner had recently died of AIDS, called me up just to put his heart at rest; with tears in his voice, he said he just wanted to be sure that we knew what the risks were, that we knew that children born to middle-aged parents have a higher likelihood of having medical problems. We assured him that we were aware of the risks, and he told us he was going to keep praying for us, and that he admired our courage. (But truly, it did not feel like courage to me. It felt frightening and confusing. What was going to happen to us?) A young woman friend, a doctor, sat on our couch in awe as we explained that we had refused amniocentesis because it seemed pointless; we would go ahead with the pregnancy no matter what the outcome. “I have never heard anyone like you before,” she said to us gratefully. (And I never had either. It seemed like everything I was doing was new. There were no precedents, no assurances.)
I recall only one day, early in the pregnancy, when I was unable to sleep because of fears about the future. And at breakfast, when I told my husband, he said to me, “You know, I figure all the plans we had made for our life before this are nothing but smoke. They’re all dreams. But this – this is reality. This is what our life looks like.” And that helped me embrace the adventure. I remember the weeks that passed after that as a time of deep peace, not because I had been assured of the future but because I was willing to live with enormous, unsettled questions. And when the miscarriage occurred we didn’t really know how to feel. Relieved? Sad? A little of both.
Passing through Advent gives us a chance to recognize that life often consists of cataclysmic interruptions, and that we have to stand at our front door and let in whoever’s coming. Indeed, it is this attitude of expectation and welcome that should characterize the Christian life. Jesus tells us that we will be judged according to our response to those who knock at our door, and he even goes so far as to identify himself with all those unknown visitors. “Into this world,” wrote Thomas Merton, “this demented inn, Christ comes uninvited.” With each knock on the door of our house we await the approach of the Messiah, knowing that truly every visitor is the Messiah and that our salvation depends on how welcoming we are.
Balancing this front door aspect of Advent, this excited expectation, is what happens at the back door. I don’t know about your back door, but in our house the back door is where we take out the garbage. It’s where we go to shake out dirty carpets and messy table cloths. It’s where we clean the dog mess off our shoes. The back door is where the most ordinary, tedious events of life take place. Christmas visitors rarely enter this way. It’s never decorated with wreaths and colored lights.
I say there’s a back door aspect to Advent because, really, who are we trying to kid? Waiting for the Messiah? We can go through the pretense of waiting for something new and exciting, but the fact is that we know very well what’s going to happen. Jesus is going to be born in Bethlehem, he’ll grow up and begin preaching, he’ll be crucified and he’ll rise from the dead. The church will take root and begin it’s well-known history. So what else is new? How can an event that we know so well, that we pass through year after year, have any impact on our lives? The question I’m really asking is, what is the wisdom of the church calendar, of going through long periods of preparation, of fasting, of prayer, of greeting the newborn Christ like a brand new baby?
A film I recently saw helped me understand this a little better. It was “Groundhog Day,” the comedy in which Bill Murray, playing a jaded television weatherman, is assigned to travel with his two-person film crew to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual appearance of the groundhog on February 2. Murray is an obnoxious, sarcastic, contemptuous bore and is particularly offensive to the female member of the crew. All goes well, the cameras are set up, the ritual takes place, the groundhog sees his shadow, and six more weeks of winter are predicted. Murray is barely able to muster enough civility to do the spot with a bit of grace, swearing under his breath that he’ll never cover Groundhog Day again. It’s all just too hokey, too quaint, for his worldly tastes. And to top it all off, Mr. Groundhog is right — a blizzard forces all the roads to close and Murray and his crew have to stay in Punxsutawney until the weather lets up.
The fun starts the next morning when the clock radio in his hotel room goes off, announcing, oddly enough, that it’s Groundhog Day! He’s puzzled. But wasn’t that yesterday? Didn’t we already go through all that? Apparently not. He arrives at the spot where the ceremonies are to take place, and sure enough, there’s his film crew, waiting to get started. He begins to wonder how much he had had to drink the night before. He begins to question his sanity. But he obediently does the spot once again. And as the day passes he sees that everything is happening exactly as it had the day before: groundhog sees his shadow; blizzard shuts down all the roads; the old school friend who he’d greeted so contemptuously on the main street hails him in exactly the same way he had the day before. Every single thing about Groundhog Day is the same.
And this becomes the framework in which Murray has the chance to change his life. Because every single morning he wakes up to the same old Sonny and Cher song, and to the same announcement that “It’s Groundhog Day!” Every day he has to do the same wretched television spot with people who apparently are unaware that they’ve been repeating all this day after day after day. Every day he has to come up with a fresh reaction to an outcome that he already knows. The groundhog is going to see his shadow, but it’s news to everybody around him. Every day he has to cope with being stranded in a dinky town in Pennsylvania with people he doesn’t particularly like (although his female co-worker is starting to look better and better).
Eventually, the repetition begins to look very much like ritual. Sitting in the park, he predicts the barking of a dog, the approach of a Brink’s truck, the moment when a passing woman will adjust her bra strap. His affection for his co-worker grows with each passing February 2nd, and he keeps getting new chances to figure out how to win her approval and affection. It takes a long time, and he makes an enormous number of blunders. But in the end he gets the girl, not by trying hard but by giving up trying. It’s the thorough turn-around — conversion — that suddenly makes him appealing to her, and in the end he is a much nicer guy. In the end he is saved.
Advent, and all the other seasons of the church calendar, are something like Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, only stretched out over a year. We need the repetition because, like the jaded weatherman in the movie, we need plenty of opportunity to get it right. We need to go through all that back-door activity day after day, year after year, taking out the garbage and keeping our shoes clean, and when it comes time to say, “Oh, look, Jesus is born!” we have to learn how to say it — not with ho-hum sarcasm, not with sentimental pretense, but with some kind of apprehension about what it all means for us. And for most of us this takes a lifetime to learn.
It’s within this necessary repetition of Advent that we come to learn how to welcome in all the surprises. Some of them are pleasant (sometimes we get the girl). Some of them are not (six more weeks of winter). Some of them are staggering in the demands they place on us. But thank God the church has given us a ritual life within which we can act out the splendid surprise of Advent again and again — until we get it right.
Nancy Forest-Flier is an editor, writer and translator. The essay was published by U.S. Catholic magazine.