“. . . we could see
how far it was to the gates of April.”
—“November,” Mary Oliver
For many years as a professor of American literature at a Christian university, I took the last class of the autumn semester to celebrate the Advent season—which might have otherwise been the last thing on our minds as we hastened toward the looming deadlines and examinations ahead. Although students were full of fatigue and anxiety as we sat in the midst of already darkening afternoon classrooms, we read Advent prayers and poetry and then enjoyed my mother’s seasonal delicacies. Seminar tables laid in white linen, edged with fresh west coast cedar boughs, welcomed the Advent wreath set in place with its deep purple and pink tapers. Our classroom became, for a few moments, a chapel, and in time’s necessary compression, we lit all four Advent candles—Hope, Peace, Joy and Love, trimming our lamps like the wise virgins of Scripture, in anticipation of the Bridegroom’s coming. And then, the Christ candle. I will always treasure the voices I hear even now in my ear’s memory of students reading, ensemble, stanzas from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” Denise Levertov’s “Annunciation” and W. H. Auden’s “For the Time Being” amongst others. Each from our own situation of belief or not, we journeyed towards Bethlehem as we sought the encouragement to move towards the unburdening of our academic concerns and into the promise of the coming Nativity.
In Roman times, in which many of the events of the liturgical calendar find their history, winter solstice was celebrated on Dec. 25, signaling that time of year in our northern hemisphere when the light of day is shortest and night its longest. Science now tells us that the times and dates for this event are a much more complicated matter for determination; our intuitive longing for the coming of the light is not, so fundamental is it to our consciousness and survival. From these ancient rites of winter solstice comes the date when Western Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and their hope that once again, absence will become Presence and the night will bear Light. Indeed, it is thought that early Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries formed their Advent wreaths from thorns, recognizing the unity of the two apocalyptic events that anchor the Christian faith—the Incarnation and the Passion of Christ.
Advent comes from the Latin word adventus and means, quite simply, coming. Few words in our language are embedded with such implication and expectation. Indeed, present time often becomes completely eclipsed when birth and death are near, when the future seems most poignant and particular.
In the royal purple of the Advent candle is signified the sovereignty of Jesus who came to establish the Kingdom of God in the hearts of his followers, his kingship borne from Mary’s womb to Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, from Bethlehem to Golgotha’s hill. And in our grasping for the light of Advent, we understand, indeed, how “far it [is] to the gates of April”—that “cruellest” month as T.S. Eliot aptly declares it in his landscape of spiritual catastrophe, The Waste Land. In this time of Advent, we wait for His coming. Once, again, and yet again. In our contemplation, we see not only the light and greenery that are before us as we enter into the liturgy of the coming Nativity but the Passion of Christ as it is symbolized in His crown of thorns. It is no small wonder that Christian liturgy instructs us that Advent and Lent are as one in their intention and preparation for the coming of the Christ. Catholic writer Richard John Neuhaus describes Advent as a “combination of celebration and solemnity,” the whole of which we become a part in our embrace and practice of the entire liturgical year.
I experienced the consummation of such darkness no more deeply and darkly than in 1977 when the first Sunday of Advent, Nov. 27, brought the news that my only sister, then 26, had died tragically and suddenly in the aftermath of a minor surgery. This shattering of a family’s life together became the then-singular apocalypse of our forever-broken hearts. As the eldest in my family and a mother of two very young daughters, I tried and tested my faith and values at every grieving moment, caring for my parents in their purgatory of anguish and looking for new laws of astronomy which might reconstitute the constellation of our lives, now strewn about us like the debris field of a meteoric cataclysm. Memento mori became my life’s instruction in an instant of history. And like Thomas Merton’s speaker in his lovely lyric poem, “The Winter’s Night,” I wondered, “Oh, is there in this night no sound of strings, of singers? / “None coming from the wedding, no, nor Bridegroom’s messenger?” In this advent of sorrow, I understood how far I was from “Christmas, when a star / Sang in the pane. . . / For now the icy light of early Lent / Glitter[ed] upon the icy step.”
In these days of Advent, we come to know that faith is most vulnerable, yet most safe, in the womb of these life and death-inflected existential conditions. Like Mary, awed, perhaps even appalled, by the angel’s declaration at the moment of the Annunciation, we consider the fraughtness of the Incarnation—its foreignness, its power, its miracle. Yet perhaps, with grace, her fiat is also silently formed in our heart’s journey: “Be it unto me according to Your word” even when human life seems most ruinous, tragic or calamitous. Like Joseph, assured by the angel that salvation was coming by the Son that his wife Mary is carrying, we might rise from our night to a small act of faith, however tentative, to light a candle in the wreath of time. Anticipation turns to fear. To relief. To awe. To joy. He is coming. Then, and again. The Light of the World. The Son of Man and the Son of God.
And while we wait, suddenly, the womb erupts in Incarnation. A Son is born and He is called “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matt. 1:23). And even more suddenly, his purposes executed, the tomb bursts open in Resurrection. I hear the words of the Christ as imagined by Karl Rahner: “I accepted you when I took my human life to myself.” And again: “I am the blind alley of all your paths, / For when you no longer know how to go any farther, / Then you have reached me, / Though you are not aware of it.” And I discover that “when the totals of [our] plans do not balance out evenly, [He] is the unsolved remainder.” In this infinitude, I embrace the lighting of Advent candles. I come with my penances and prayers. I kneel before the Natal manger and learn that I am born, not only here, not only now, but in Bethlehem, on Olivet, on Calvary, in Easter’s unsealed tomb. And I say with Rahner, “It is Christmas. Light the candles. They have more right to exist than all the darkness. It is Christmas, Christmas that lasts forever.” And in my cosmology of humanness, I come to know in the ground of my being that the darkness of Advent will be forever one with the Passion of Easter; that this darkness becomes Light, and Death becomes Life. And that we need not bear one without the other.