In my Anglo-Catholic tradition, today, November 28th, is the beginning of a season particularly dear to me–Advent. From today until December 25th, I work to quiet myself as I wait for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whom I believe was a special human who advocated for a new kind of world–one based in love and hospitality and forgiveness, one where all were seen as equally important to God, where whatever status symbols existed then, like skin color and zip codes today, did not shut one off from the promises spelled out so carefully by great Jewish prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah. At services on each of the four Sundays in Advent, I sing the same processional hymn, “Take Comfort, My People,” all about trusting that the tired old world can and will turn to the new light coming into a world too focused on dark forces that divide and conquer through force. At my present church, a huge and stunning basilica in Minneapolis, a giant wreath has been magically suspended from the ceiling at the very center of the church. This wreath has four large lanterns in which a single candle is positioned. Someone lights one of these each week, again magically as far as I can determine, and we begin the service by facing the center and affirming the coming light with its new message about how to live.
We are encouraged to resist the capitalistic appropriation of Christmas as we spend extra time just sitting quietly and thinking about what it might mean if more of us practiced the principles set down over and over by the carpenter from Nazareth, who kept saying he was the “prince of peace,” not a king wishing to control people for personal gains. I do this by reading the Psalms, written by one of the great poets of the western world. And I keep a little notebook handy so I can make notes of phrases or ideas in the individual psalms that appeal to or challenge me. This year, I have a new little notebook given to me by a special friend, so I feel especially grateful as I make my first marks on its pages. This practice, known as lecto divino goes back to the middle ages when monks kept similar jottings as they did their daily meditational readings. All this is to slow me down. And, as the world around me begins to focus on its notions of “Christmas” before we’ve engaged in “trick or treat,” I value what I know about the import of Advent more than ever.
And this year, the same day my faith world lights our first of four candles, my Jewish friends will light their first Chanakah candles tonight, so the crucial connection between these two sets of beliefs is even tighter than usual. I will soon put up my own creche, which is mostly animals/birds/sea creatures given to me by friends over decades. I have a little building at the back of which are tiny figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby, but my creche celebrates how this unusual birth catches the spirits of non-human beings who delight in such a tiny figure’s having such an impact on the imaginations and lives of so many since he first cried and suckled his mother’s breast.