We knew on the threshold of it all that this would be a busy, and potentially stressful, December. There would be a big downsizing move to make happen for my grandmother; there would be a big graduation to celebrate and a party to plan; there’d be a couple of birthdays, special Masses and lots of church obligations, a great many of which included singing. We knew we were really in need of good health at the very time of year when everyone–especially us–gets sick. Weather forecasts looked uncertain–not a great sign for the move–there was Christmas itself to prepare for individually and as a family. Throw in an orthodontist appointment here and school to wrap up there, and all in all it was promising to be the busiest month yet of a busy year.
And yet I think many of us entertained a determination, as we formed our Advent resolutions, that we would manage to find the space for the deep quiet, prayer, and contemplation that Advent ought to thrive in. Our family loves Advent. It’s like a brighter and easier Lent. As always, by the first Sunday, we had each chosen something to work on in ourselves, to really cleanse and prepare our souls for the coming of the Christ Child. As a family we made our typical resolution of not watching TV so much in the evenings. We kept our simplified gift-giving plan which worked so well last year.
We all knew what kind of Advent we wanted; we all were as determined as ever to keep the ridiculous secular “rush” of the “holiday season” firmly outside of our little domestic church so we could look forward, well-prepared and full of peace and serenity, to a delightful Christmas–probably the last family Christmas with all us kids at home.
Fast forward to sometime amidst the first week of Advent. The first venture out to help my grandmother pack has been a less-than-encouraging taste of the amount of work to be done and left us all pretty tired and a little overwhelmed. We’ve managed to keep my mom’s birthday in our sacred tradition of family birthdays, but my brother had to go to the doctor to see about a cough he can’t shake from a month-old cold. We’re all holding our breath to see if he picked up some far worse germ in the sick waiting room of the pediatrician when my younger sister is struck down by the nastiest, tonsillitis-inducing, most miserable cold virus imaginable. Her head aches, her throat is blistered, she has a cough. Back to the pediatrician. Of course, it’s just a virus, and there’s nothing to really do but give her a symptom reliever and wait it out (and hope no one else catches it). And there’s nothing to do when you feel that way but lie on the couch and watch TV to get your mind off it.
Meanwhile, the weather forecast is only worsening, and planning the upcoming move becomes a constant frustration to my dad and mom, who try to keep their spirits up by walking around singing “If we make it through December” to each other. A completely forgotten dentist appointment springs up for my sister and I. Come to find out, I need my bonding replaced where I knocked half of one of my teeth of at a playground when I was eleven. But we manage to celebrate St. Nicholas day, complete with slippers and homemade St. Nicholas cookies, before more packing finishes the day.
My younger sister worsens, now fighting nausea because of the Mucinex. The weather is nasty outside. We split the family up between the vigil and morning Masses for the Immaculate Conception so someone can be home with her; instead of snow this year it is nasty, cold, drizzly rain all day. But at least we’ve gotten a date set for moving my grandmother, hired some movers to help with the furniture. That’s a load eased on Dad’s mind. The Dash is able to spend a lot of the weekend with us and we have a movie night Saturday. But by the time it’s done, the wind outside is so bad that Mary convinces him to spend the night again, for fear that he’ll be crushed by some tree falling trying to drive down off our mountain. We all get to sleep in spite of the howling wind (and any jitters left over from watching The Village), knowing we needed to be up and to church for choir practice the next morning.
I wake up on the second Sunday of Advent, glance over at my clock to see what time it is, and find it blank. “Oh,” I exclaimed with sleepy placidness, “the power’s out.”
Come to find out, it had been out since about midnight, waking most everyone up. Mary and my younger sis had also been up for a while that night because younger sis was feeling miserable. I’d slept straight through it all.
Okay, so now the house was freezing and we had to figure out a way to get ready for church in the cold dark without running water (we’re on a well so no power means no water as well). The power company hadn’t even sent a crew to locate the problem. My dad’s generators, which he invested in and kept ready for situations like this one, decided to fail on him. Everyone but me, it seemed, hadn’t slept half the night and was at least exhausted if not cranky. I wasn’t feeling too excited about life myself.
And then, as if on cue, the symptom relievers finally got the best of my sister and she got sick. That wasn’t the greatest morning ever. But eventually, Dad had got a fire going in our fireplace (the first of the season), my younger sis was snuggled on the couch near Mom, and the Dash whisked Mary, myself, and my brother off to choir and Mass.
Our pew felt sadly empty with just the four of us as we knelt there, drowsy and wrinkled, through the rosary and Mass. As I tried to keep my focus on the mysteries (and not on the manifold abundance of cute little kids everywhere), I wondered at the craziness of this Advent. I missed my sister and thought about how much I hurt when she suffered. I thought about my resolutions–to be strictly faithful to my daily prayer routine, which had, because of all the busyness, not changed too much from the norm. I heard the voices of my dad and mom and Mary all confiding in me how impossible it seemed to just settle into Advent this year, to be still long enough to draw in a breath and think about the meaning of the season.
And then, somewhere in those decades, it came to me that maybe we were looking at all this the wrong way.
I contemplated the fact that God was in control of everything happening, from the weather to the electricity to my younger sister. And it was all beyond our control. We weren’t filling up the quiet of Advent with the secular cacophony of parties and shopping extravaganzas and Elfs on Shelfs. We were literally trying to “make it through December”, to reach Christmas all alive and together and in one piece. That was all, and boy howdy, this year, there wasn’t room for anything else.
Last Advent, I was working through all the emotions of truly believing that I would be in a convent in Missouri next Christmas. Looking back, I now realize with gratitude and joy that God has perfected quite different plans for me this year.
But I also realize that, if I were at Ephesus now, I would be living that Advent that my family dreamed of at the beginning of this crazy December; a season of silence, deep prayer, sweet contemplation and undisturbed preparation for Christmas. In the monastic life, there is room for all of that; the monastic life revolves around that. I remember my spiritual director talking of how the ability to live the liturgical year so deeply is one of the great perks of the religious life.
And then I understood, as I toyed with my rosary beads and murmured Hail Marys. All this month had seemed senseless simply because we’d been expecting to be able to live the Advent of a religious, and instead was getting a good taste of the Advent of the laity, the faithful living in the world. We’d been God expected us to participate in the Advent of Our Lady when in reality, ours was the Advent of St. Joseph.
If one considers that first Advent and the Holy Family on their way to Bethlehem, this makes such sense. We see Our Lady, who trusted St. Joseph to guide their way and protect them, with God Incarnate within her womb, and was able to spend her Advent in holy silence, in the glories of her deep contemplation and prayer, her soul lost in the wonders of the Child within her.
And then we look at St. Joseph. He knew that he was with the Mother of God, and God Himself in her womb, every waking minute of that journey. And yet he didn’t have the option of simply sitting and focusing on the sublime joy and mysteries at his side. His soul probably ached to be able to do so. And yet, he had to focus on getting them safely from Nazareth to Bethlehem, to make sure they were headed in the right direction every day, to try to find the smoothest road. He needed to keep Mary warm and comfortable as he could, to find food when there wasn’t enough, to bear with his stubborn donkey and his aching feet, to cross rivers and rough landscapes, and eventually to shoulder the stress of trying to find a place for the birth of God when nothing but a stable was available. And we feel certain he never failed to brush down his donkey at the end of the day and make sure it was fed. We are confident that he never failed in his love and gentleness towards Our Lady in the most frustrating times, and that God knew what He was doing when he chose the foster-father of His Only-Begotten Son.
God needed St. Joseph to focus on the numberless cares and concerns he shouldered during that first Advent, and trust that Our Lady and our Lord were ever at his side and ever mindful of his efforts. That was, simply put, his state in life, the duties that made him one of the greatest and dearest Saints in Heaven. And, as the laity, we find that is also ours. Those called to the religious life are invited into the deep Advent of our Lady; but we who are called to serve God in the world are given a share in the Advent of St. Joseph.
It seems that God knows what He’s about. Sunday, with the power still out, we ended up going to my grandmother’s house to get warm. After spending the night, we spent Monday morning helping with more packing–and realized that we really needed to be there to help get ready for the move the next day. Things continued to be, as they had been all month, a tapestry of little joys and little stresses. Younger sis was finally beginning to pick up a little bit, and the power came back on earlier than expected. And then we got home and had to throw out a refrigerator full of food because it hadn’t been running for over thirty hours.
But we got dinner, and slept well, and then tackled the move yesterday–all things considered, the day couldn’t have gone better. In spite of some worries over icy road conditions in the morning, the day grew beautiful and God worked the timing out just right.
And today, I find that Advent is half over; Christmas, less than two weeks away, the Golden Nights fast approaching. There’s still plenty to do, and probably some unexpected challenges ahead of us. But I can already see how my family has grown together in a beautiful way this first half of the season, and I’m really thrilled to be able to look forward to celebrating this Christmas with them, whatever the externals look like. I feel pretty confident that, with St. Joseph’s help, we’ll find a way to make it through December.
So, a blessed Advent to you all…and happy feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe!