While it’s hard to say, I really think Advent might be my favorite season of the church year.
This has been the case for a long time, long before I became an Episcopalian and all liturgical seasons became more obvious. I loved it as a child when, at least a couple of years, I had one of those paper Advent calendars with the little perforated doors and chocolate treats. I loved it as I learned to sing and play music and experienced the beautiful hymnody of the season. I loved it in college when I decided liturgical dance was a thing I did, and each Sunday we processed through the aisles to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” And yes, I loved it when I started attending St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette, Indiana, where the deep blue Advent vestments sparkle in the candlelight (seriously, they’re so pretty).
Part of what I like about Advent is that it’s a quiet season, marked by early nightfalls, lit candles, and music in minor keys. It’s a time for reflection and meditation. It’s a dream for introverts like me who look for any excuse to turn the volume down. It’s also a much-needed time to step back and breathe when the world seems to be filled with too much hatred and violence to hold.
A time to step back, yes, but also a time to live with the hatred and violence, to take a good, long look at the darkness in order to better see the light. Advent is a season of joyous and hopeful expectation, but depending on whom you’re asking, it is also a penitential season. I certainly think Advent has penitential aspects: it seems a natural part of preparing for the coming of Christ—his coming and his coming again—is to get our houses in order. I mean this in a literal sense (nothing makes me want to clean and tidy my living space like decorating in preparation for Christmas) as well as a spiritual one.
Advent is the liturgical New Year, and it’s a great time for examining, and perhaps reordering, priorities.
My dream Advent seldom seems to line up with the way I keep Advent in real life, though. I’ve been on a calendar of academic semesters almost every Advent of my teens and twenties, and the last few weeks of the semester are not typically conducive to quiet contemplation and a slower pace. A professor commiserated at a recent community dinner, saying, “I think Advent is my favorite season, but by the time I’ve finished all of the work and grading, Christmas is here and I never really got to enjoy it.”
And the stress and hurriedness of early December is surely not limited to students and educators. In fact, I would say most people feel some sense of strain and worry in all the December hustle and bustle. As much as any of us would like to slow down and have a quiet, contemplative Advent, I wonder to what extent that’s really possible if we don’t want to withdraw from the world.
Perhaps in some ways, though, this disconnect between frenetic activity and quiet reflection actually reflects the spirit of Advent. In Advent, we are anticipating not only Christ’s first coming, Christmas, but also Christ’s coming again. And in this time of expectation and anticipation, we are living in the already-not yet of the Kingdom of God, which is by nature a place of paradox. Given the choice, I would almost certainly opt for a quiet, reflective Advent—but perhaps I can learn to inhabit an Advent that is quiet and loud, reflective and rushed, joyous and penitent, light and dark.
Alissa Goudswaard Anderson (’10) lives with her husband Josh in New York City, where she is earning her Master of Divinity at General Theological Seminary. Alissa enjoys private kitchen dance parties, big Midwestern thunderstorms, and perusing other peoples’ bookshelves. For more, find her online at www.episcotheque.wordpress.com or tweet her @episcotheque.