Awakening to Advent

Denise West, OSB Far from home, Living in Community 13 Comments

waxing moon surrounded by dark branches

  1. There is such a thing as an Advent calendar, which counts down the days until Christmas.
  2. During Advent, Christians look forward to the birth of Jesus.

Until recently, this was pretty much the sum total of my understanding of Advent. Observing the season is not part of my tradition–growing up, I didn’t even go to church for Christmas or Easter. If Advent was observed at my current home church, I must not have been tuning in.

This year signs of Advent are unmistakable. Paz and I helped create the Advent wreath for Sunday Assembly, we set out the Advent prayer books with different antiphons and hymns for the season and we put out Advent candles in the oratory. These physical changes signaled for me a different way of being for this month and I was curious what the changes signified.

I noticed that in the days leading up to Advent we had several readings from the Books of Daniel and Revelation. Then, on November 29, the first day of Advent, we heard from Luke:

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations…Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  (Luke 21:25-36)

Why were we hearing so much about the end times all of a sudden? I wondered how it related to Advent. What, I wondered, does this have to do with the birth of Jesus, which we are supposed to be looking forward to?

About the time that I should have been starting on my blog for this month, I decided it could wait, that I didn’t really need to get an early start. I didn’t really want to get involved in writing something personal. I procrastinated. I dreaded. And I didn’t know why.

Finally, close to the last minute before my deadline, I opened one of the books on Advent that I borrowed from Lynn Lemberger, director of worship and music here at the monastery.  There were many writings from a variety of perspectives. This bit particularly resonated with me:

Advent is the time for rousing. We are shaken to the very depths, so that we may wake up to the truth of ourselves. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender. We must let go of all our mistaken dreams, our conceited poses and arrogant gestures, all the pretenses with which we hope to deceive ourselves and others. If we fail to do this, stark reality may take hold of us and rouse us forcibly in a way that will entail both anxiety and suffering. —Alfred Delp*

glow of sunset and a full moon over the retreat and guest house

It dawned on me what was at the heart of my procrastination. All of this unknowing around Advent had tapped into a fear that periodically rears its head in my faith journey. I worry that I don’t believe the things that Christians are supposed to believe, and that at some point I’m going to cross a line where I’ll no longer be able to call myself a Christian. I thought I had put that particular anxiety to rest, but here it was again.  I didn’t want to take too close a look at what Advent meant out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to connect with it in an authentic way. I realized, finally, that Advent had tapped into a deep part of me that asks, “Do I belong?” I began to see that at times I try to deceive myself and pretend to believe what I think I’m supposed to believe so that I feel I deserve to belong to the Christian community.

Rather than moving into the unknown, finding out what this month before Christmas is all about, I was trying to avoid the whole thing, pretend that some of the scripture verses weren’t challenging. This pretense, based in fear, had led me to a place of exile. I felt outside the boundary of God’s love. The message or purpose of Advent for me was becoming clearer. Watch!  Be alert to the ways that you deceive yourself, instead of putting your trust in God.

When darkness induces modesty, humility, faith and trust, it leads to a communion with God as God really is; it frees us from the self-deception of worshiping gods of our own making.  Only the real God saves; not the illusion.  The true Israelite is the wise person who makes a home “in the shadow of the Shaddai.” (Psalm 91:1) —John Navone*

I’m sure this won’t be the last time I lead myself down a darkened path. When that time comes, I hope to remember the wisdom of this season.

*Writings come from: An Advent Sourcebook, edited by Thomas J. O’Gorman.


Read other posts from Denise in her series, Far from home.

Comments 13

  1. ” I worry that I don’t believe the things that Christians are supposed to believe, and that at some point I’m going to cross a line where I’ll no longer be able to call myself a Christian.”

    Been there, thought that, especially in the last few years here at Mt Tabor. Good thing this Benedictine thing is a journey not a destination. Just remember we are all on the darkened path. Every once in a while we meet someone with the Light. Namaste’

    1. Post

      I like how you put that…’we are all on the darkened path.’ I’m beginning to understand that the light comes and goes, and that’s okay. Thanks so much for your comment, Sister Kathy.

  2. Thanks for your honesty Denise. I resonate with that sense of living on the borderline of being a Christian. I think that’s where Jesus spent most his Ministry reframing and deepening his understanding of his Jewish faith. I have a hunch he would be shocked that there is a whole new religion in his name. His embrace of women alone would have put him outside the gate. Add to that talking to a Samaritan woman and affirming her faith. All being said, Jesus aligned most perfectly with those who were full of questions and challenging their faith. Seems to me Holy Wisdom is fertile ground for so much beyond the prairie that is being restored. The prairie within each of us is being restored as well. I love the traditions of the church and the “planned opportunities” for raising questions “within”….there’s a gem in the works within us and it is exciting to be a part of the unfolding.

    1. Well said, Chris. I’m so appreciative of this space to get to know some of the oldest traditions within the church and have access to so much that is “progressive” or changing within the church. Thanks, again, for reading and for your thoughtful comments.

  3. Denise;
    Thank you for your courage in writing so openly. You clearly express what many of us, with life-long traditions in the church, continue to struggle with. Advent is the beginning of the path for the church year and also a re-invigoration of the beliefs and issues we continue to face. I appreciate your eloquence.
    Christmas Blessing to you.

    1. Thank you, Maureen for responding. It’s good to know we aren’t alone in our questioning.
      Many blessings to you!

    1. Hi Steve! Thanks for reading! Yes, I’ve been keeping up with Riverside news and have also enjoyed the Advent readings.

      A very merry Christmas to you!

  4. Thank you, Maureen, for responding. This has certainly been a time for me to reflect on what I believe. I suppose it’s a never-ending process.
    A wonderful Christmas to you, too!

  5. I have enjoyed reading each installment of “Far from Home”, though always with an uneasy sense I was trespassing a bit in doing so. With “Awakening to Advent” the uneasiness was considerably heightened. Powerfully poignant and personal it provides much for me, and probably many of us, to ponder and pray about.

    Merry Christmas, Denise. Looks like El Nino may spare the upper Midwest from its usual winter temperatures this year. Regardless, stay warm!

    1. Hi Jim, I’m happy you’re reading and enjoying the posts.

      True, it’s been unseasonably warm – very wet and not much white. Nevertheless, the joy of the season is in the air. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year.


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