While the world longs for 2020 to be over, a new year has already begun.
Nature has sunk into hibernation; the bare trees speak in silence and early evening shadows darken our days.
“Nature and mystery join and invite us to recognize our hopeful longing and the return of the sun and the birth of the Word made flesh,” writes Gertrud Mueller Nelson. “When nature and mystery remain combined there is great power.”
This line, pregnant with possibility, comes from To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration. It’s a book that helped change the way I practice my Christian faith.
Written in 1986, To Dance with God remains, among my books on the liturgical year, unique in its cultural reflection, psychological depth and charming practicality for individuals and families.
In accepting the invitation to renew ourselves with rituals offered by the liturgical cycles of the Church, we need not wait for 2020 to be over to begin a new year.
I was eighteen years old when I first learned of the Advent season. The church of my childhood did not follow the historic liturgical calendar. Though the devotion of its members was as heartfelt as any I’ve encountered since, the rituals of the ancient Church had been jettisoned for a plainer approach to piety.
But, as Gertrud Mueller Nelson reminds us in her book, humans need ritual. When we abandon one form, we recreate it in another.
My childhood church followed the more secular style of celebrating “the holidays” with Christmas music and yuley decor all December long, culminating in a party complete with a visit from Santa Claus after the Christmas Eve service. We cleaned all the evergreen away on New Year’s Eve after a big family “watchnight” party culminating in prayer at midnight.
The memory warms me still.
But the year I left for college, my pastor father left my childhood church denomination and joined another, more liturgical one. When I came home for Christmas vacation that year, there was an Advent wreath on the dining room table.
In the darkened evening my mother lit three candles while my dad explained to my brothers and me that in the first few centuries of Christianity, a season of waiting was developed to support believers in preparing their hearts for Christ’s coming.
Advent, he said, means “coming,” and we would be reading from the Old Testament prophets, the book of Revelation and the Gospels along with other Christians who follow a seasonal cycle of readings throughout the year.
Weary from studies and wide open to new ideas, I was enchanted by the candles in the darkness. I was a growing, questioning Christian and here was the invitation I needed to take stock of my spiritual life and make room for the coming King.
Turns out I still do, after all these years.
In the dwindling of 2020, a secular society, even more so now than it was back then, gives religion its due only when forced to. We’ve begun to exchange the phrase “freedom of worship” for “freedom of religion” because we tend to accept religion only when it’s quiet.
Decades before I was received into the Catholic Church, To Dance with God, which I read as a searching young adult, gave me a deeper understanding of what happens in the liturgical cycles of feasting and fasting, beginning with Advent and continuing throughout the Church year.
The book also led me to understand their profundity.
Nelson invites the reader consider the thought of Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), the University of Chicago’s voluminous religion historian whose work, following the lead of German philosopher Rudolph Otto (1869-1937), plumbed the depths of humankind’s pursuit of transcendent realities.
Eliade’s research led him to the conclusion that an experience of transcendent, or sacred, reality is shared by most human beings, who tend to separate the sacred and the profane, and who connect with the sacred through ritual and story.
“Since the beginning of time,” writes Nelson, “humankind has centered and located itself in the sacred. She adds:
Now, in very recent history, we have created as wholly a secular or desacralized world as there has ever been. We have evolved a new, non-religious society, where we think ourselves to be free and unencumbered by taboo and by the irrational, a world where we think that we can create ourselves.
Her book is not a thoughtless apologetic, however. “The completely secular world of modern society…is as much a result of humankind’s search for the truth as it is a reaction against that aspect of the Church that claimed to have every answer, if you would only close your eyes, ask no questions and obey,” she acknowledges.
As an authentic, organic community growing together through space and time, its members don’t always get everything right at a particular moment. Abuses have led to schism more than once over the centuries.
But the Church does preserve the mysteries given in seed form to the apostles and it continues to hand the fruit of its reflection on generation by generation, its flame of faith still glowing.
We may try to escape it. We may leave it to create a new, and in our view more “authentic” version of Christianity, we may ignore the subtle draw we feel toward its permanence. But when we abandon its teaching and rituals and neglect to engage its great intellectual tradition, we are left with a yearning for something more.
We undertake new quests for the “something” that is missing.
As Eliade himself put it:
To whatever degree he may have desacralized the world, the man who has made his choice in favor of a profane life never succeeds completely in doing away with religious behavior.
Still, the infinite God who is Being, who is hinted at in every sacred experience human beings have ever had, must reveal himself or we would not be able to know him at all.
God’s self-revelation comes to us in many ways, but is most fully present in the person of Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection are preserved for us in the four gospels and whose ongoing relationship with his people is made present to every generation in the Church.
That is part of the beauty of Advent, the liturgical season in which we’re invited to keep watch, to consider the condition of our souls, to empty them in order to encounter the mystery of his coming more fully this Christmas.
So Advent begins with a flame, one candle lit on a wreath of four, with which we will mark and make sacred the time.
“We work our way toward Christmas,” writes Nelson. “With quiet excitement we go about those simple gestures that ratify the mystery about to take place.”
We consider the darkness that still rules in our own hearts.
We sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and consider the chains holding us captive, as the ancient people of Israel were in the time of their Babylonian captivity.
“We inch up to Christmas,” Nelson says, “prepare, count days, keep secrets, watch for the signs. A red evening sky, every fleecy cloud on fire for a last few minutes before a winter night falls, still brings a shout. ‘Look! Christmas is coming!'”
Delayed gratification is almost a lost art and needs our ceremonies to reinstate it.
Over the years my family has made many compromises over just how much yuley decor we will place around the house, or when and whether Christmas movies and music will be a part of our Advent.
I’m less of a purist than I once was.
But Advent always begins with a flame.
A new year has begun in hope that we will one day meet our Savior-King face to face.
May that flame burn ever brighter in hearts who love his humble self-revelation and long to bend our knees once more before his manger-bed.
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Fr. Robert Spitzer’s The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason (Volume 2 of his quartet on happiness, suffering and transcendence) contains a very accessible summary of both Rudolph Otto and Mircea Eliade’s research on humanity’s experience with trancendent realities.
For King & Country’s take on “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is my new favorite. May it bless your Advent journey!