Rituals and Rhythms

When I was younger I loved getting these for Advent, though we didn’t get them every year. You probably recognize them – behind each door is a piece of chocolate. When my kids were little I bought them when I could. Now I buy them for the grands. When I sent the calendar home with one of them last week, his dad immediately asked, “Is this the kind with chocolates?” He remembered . . . and he offered to help his little one eat the candy. Today I see the contrast of Advent being a season of waiting and marking the days by eating a daily dose of sweetness, and Lent – another season of waiting – and we kids marked the days by giving up sweets, our most popular form of sacrifice.

Advent calendars have ‘matured’ over the years; there are still those with chocolates behind the doors but a far better quality of chocolate, my sister had one that revealed a craft beer behind each door, my cousin Judy opened the doors of her calendar last year and found a charm each day. By Christmas she had two pretty charm bracelets. While we’ve grown up, we haven’t outgrown the need for the ritual of anticipating Christmas.

Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, Ordinary Time, Advent . . . there’s a rhythm and cyclical nature to the liturgical year,  just like the rhythm and cyclical nature of our calendar year as one season follows another. Ages ago our ancestors lived by that seasonal flux of planting, hunting, harvesting, preserving, hunkering down. I often wonder how much of our collective disharmony is because we’re subconsciously yearning for that rhythm. At the time all of nature around us is quieting, we humans are creating ways to make us super busy. Not that we should all go back to farming, but are we ignoring a natural need for a little hunkering down?

My friend Kim shared this excerpt on Facebook a week or so ago.

“Practicing the liturgical calendar is a counterformation to the culture of impatience. It sets us apart as a peculiar people who resist what James K.A. Smith calls ‘the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture.’ In the liturgical year, there is never celebration without preparation. We wait, we mourn, we ache, we repent. We aren’t ready to celebrate until we acknowledge, through ritual and worship, that we and this world are not-yet-right… Before Easter, we have Lent. Before Christmas, we have Advent. We prepare; we practice waiting. We fast. Then we feast.”

From Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary

In last week’s post I said contemplation wasn’t navel-gazing but seeking the sacred in the secular. In the same way, when Warren talks about stepping back, fasting, and waiting, I don’t think she means to step away completely from all the excitement and fun of the season. Advent is always about waiting, but also preparation, so there’s a built-in ‘we have things to do to get ready.’  There’s great joy and fulfillment in those moments we bake cookies, we choose just the right gift, we bring out the ornaments that have sentimental value and we share those stories. It can even be fun being out in the crowds and soaking up the holiday energy. Yet within all that noise, is a whisper to hunker down.

I’ve written before that I don’t start decorating until Advent and it’s a slow progression until finally everything is festive and colorful by Christmas. (I’ve been known to be adding finishing touches and stashing away decoration boxes as family comes in the door for our holiday gathering.) Part of that process is because of time constraints, but most of it is a deliberate desire for that gradual build up, a layering on, of Christmas. I admit it’s not always easy staying in that mindset. I can get in a funk when I see other homes completely decorated and the tree up by Thanksgiving weekend and I’m barely finished with the turkey leftovers. It’s uncomfortable being set apart as a peculiar people. It’s in those moments I have to stop and remind myself the preparation isn’t just external in decorating and baking. There’s internal preparation too.

The first indication the holiday is approaching is the Advent wreath that comes out on the first Sunday of Advent. This wreath is 20 years-old, made as a family project during a parish Family Advent Day. It’s my external reminder of the internal prep work. I don’t spend hours in meditation, (there are other things that need doing!) but the minutes I spend at different parts of the day are like deep cleansing breaths re-centering me within all the other activity.                                                   

Among my Advent materials this year is a booklet based on the poetry of Mary Oliver, whose poetry always connects me to the beauty and sacredness of nature. Another, All Creation Waits, is a book of reflections on how various creatures instinctively know how to enter into the quieting of winter, and don’t fight it. I read the first one, Turtle, last night. It’s fascinating how they not only bury themselves in the mud for protection, there’s also a physiological change as calcium is drawn out of the bones and shell to neutralize a specific acid that builds up from lack of oxygen. Talk about letting go, stripping down, and waiting!

This is Christian tradition at its best, moving in step with creation. When the sun’s light and heat wane, the natural world lets lushness fall away. It strips down. All energy is directed to the essentials that ensure survival. Engaging in Advent’s stripping practices – fasting, giving away, praying – we tune into the rhythms humming in the cells of all creatures living in the northern hemisphere. We tune into our own essential rhythms.

From the Introduction of All Creation Waits by Gayle Boss

Each [creature] in its own way says: The dark is not an end, but a door. This is the way a new beginning comes. (All Creation Waits)

And every once in a while there’s chocolate behind the door.

As we human creatures enter the noise of the season, may we also heed the whisper of the waiting, preparation, and joy of Advent. 

All Creation Waits by Gayle Boss

The Poetry of Advent with Mary Oliver

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