Hey! I’m over at Catholic New Media Roundup Advent Calendar! You should go over there every day to see what’s going on!
One of my favorite memories from Advent is from twenty years ago. It was early fall, and our second child, Christy, was just a few months old. Our parish announced that they were recruiting families for a Christmas pageant to be held in early December, so I dutifully gathered the flyer and went on with my life. It was to be a full re-creation of what Bethlehem might have looked like 2000 years ago (or maybe, what the set-builders and actors thought it would look like).
As the date for the pageant approached, the pleas for a couple with an infant became a bit more pressing, and finally, my husband and I attended one of the meetings. I had very long black hair at the time, and my husband had a full beard. When the spunky little nun who was running the show saw us she declared that we were the Holy Family and wouldn’t even need any make-up. We laughed, were fitted for our costumes, and took the only direction we’d need for the evening: Joseph, you’re going to escort your wife to the city gates, sign the census, and find a place to stay.
That was it.
As it happens, it was one of the coldest nights on record in South Florida. I handed off Christy to her godmother, and
John Joseph and I began the rather uncomfortable trial of finding a place to stay. The market was bustling with people, there were animals everywhere, vendors selling their wares, Roman soldiers and beggars at odds with each other. And everywhere we went, we were turned away. At one point, we tried to get something warm to drink, and we were scorned.
I can tell you we were getting a little desperate to find our kid and return to the welcoming warmth of our own home, but as they say, the show must go on. Finally, one of the innkeepers took pity on us and led us to a stable (conveniently located on a stage in a field behind the market), and the Angel of the Lord appeared, in resplendent glory, hanging from a cherry picker high above the crowd and read the story of the Nativity.
Was it kitschy? You bet. But it was also amazingly well done, and for a moment, I had walked in Mary’s footsteps, and felt closer to her than I had ever before. We were both young mothers, trying to take care of our babies, focused on their warmth and safety at the moment while trusting that our husbands would take care of us and find what we needed.
That common humanity that we shared with the Holy Family that night changed me in small ways. It opened my heart, interestingly enough, to Mary, and to the immensity of her submission to God. Her “yes” and, we often forget, Joseph’s “yes” , together set the stage, with each playing their parts, for
my our salvation.
That pageant changed the way I looked at Christmas. It was no longer an end, but a beginning. Those days leading up to Christmas day became, at first, a period of reflection as I thought about the difficulty of Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. I lived in a constant state of discomfort in that last trimester — how much more did she go through? It became, for me, a deeply personal journey of discovery about my own faith — taken in baby steps, led along the path by Mary and other faithful people who have come in and out of my life and shared their own journeys.
I can’t say that I understood it all that night. I had a moment of insight, but perhaps that’s all I needed to get me going. After all, the Holy Spirit just needs a chance, right?
Something changed in me that night — perhaps the way I understood Advent. We understand it to be a time of reflection, waiting, and especially reconciliation, but it is much more.
During this season we wait and prepare for the coming of our Lord, but it was my realization that night many years ago as I held my own child up for the world to see, that it was only the beginning. That the mystery of the Incarnation was a necessary step in a grander scheme, and that what we are preparing for is not under a tree in a creche or a brightly decorated box, but in Jesus Christ — that we may know the depth of God’s love.
“In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him” (1 Jn 4:9).
When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (CCC 524).
And so we wait, and prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s birth, but also, the anticipation of His return.