Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets, was born 140 years ago this month. His poem “Advent” compares wind-blown snowflakes to a flock of sheep driven by a shepherd. Strikingly, the fir trees must stretch out their branches and brave the very wind that earlier in the poem tends, shepherd-like, to the snowflakes:
There in the wintry forest the wind blows
a flock of snowflakes like a shepherd,
and many a fir-tree guesses how soon
it will be pious with holy lights,
and listens. Towards the white path
it stretches out its branches, ready,
and braving the wind and growing toward
that one Night of Glory.
I think the wind in Rilke’s poem is a fitting metaphor for the Advent season itself—it shepherds us toward comfort and protection, but, like the fir tree, we must first brave its harshness.
In my experience, the weeks prior to Christmas are anything but harsh. I have lived through many a December without giving a thought to Advent (or even knowing what the word meant). So why enter into this tradition, especially if it forces me to acknowledge my vulnerability? I can relate to the way T. Denise Anderson begins her reflection on the lectionary texts for November 29: “So, what of Advent?”
Anderson’s question invites readers to consider the purpose of the church calendar when December rolls around. Is it really necessary? When we observe All Saints’ Day, for instance, the church calendar is altogether necessary, reminding us of a celebration that would otherwise slip by unnoticed.
Not so with Advent, given the ubiquity of Christmas décor in the marketplace since at least early November. “When it comes to looking forward to Christmas,” Anderson says, “our culture needs no help from the liturgical year.”
And Anderson is right. The Christmas season is without a doubt my favorite time of the year because of its comforting familiarity. The smell of evergreen, the decorative lights, all of the traditions and time spent around tables with family—I don’t need the church calendar to remind me that Christmas is coming.
But I do need the church calendar to re-imagine what it might mean that Christmas is coming.
Anderson articulates some of the forms that this re-imagining might take, saying, “Advent directs our attention to different signs—signs with which the culture tends not to concern itself because they are uncomfortable to consider. Culture looks toward the sentimentality of Christmas; Advent looks toward the shifting of culture’s own paradigms. Culture assumes a rather shallow display of good will and emotional warmth; Advent demands good will of systems that aren’t, by their design, predisposed to it. Culture hopes for an economic boost to keep itself aloft; Advent looks toward an economy that is just.”
I tend to bristle against the idea that Advent involves actively resisting the tendencies of our culture during this season. After all, it’s much easier to consume, to succumb to sentimentality, to feign good will and proscribe limits to generosity. And yet, if I choose to pay attention to the nativity in the gospels, I cannot avoid the harshness, danger, and vulnerability that the accounts depict.
In a piece called “Advent Begins with Trouble,” Edwin Searcy calls Advent “the season that refuses to ignore the troubles that plague the world, the nations, the church, the family and the soul. Advent is the deep blue of the morning, just at dawn as the dark night is coming to an end.”
As if this evaluation were not bleak enough, Searcy follows with an even more somber question: “How much of this fragility and danger remain in our festivities?”
Before we turn away from challenges like Searcy’s, muttering under our breath that he should pipe down and let us enjoy our Christmas cookies already, we would do well to listen to his concluding point: “Telling the truth about the trouble draws God into the fray.”
What a thought! Perhaps the very act of telling the truth about the trouble pushes Jesus into the world.
For Searcy, part of “telling the truth about the trouble” involves attending to “the odd texts that take the church deep into the ache and grief that cries out for a saviour.” Even before the comforting assurance of God with us, Christmas is, as Searcy puts it, “a journey into the vulnerability of God’s mission to save the earth.”
How fragile, this hope—sought out to be killed before first breath, and born into darkness. And yet, how real—splay-limbed and slick-skinned, full of longing.
So, what of Advent? What troublesome truths will we allow ourselves to tell in its deep, pre-dawn blue? To what extent can we enter into the danger facing this sojourning family, ready, and braving the wind toward Glory?