Thanksgiving afternoon, I stood shivering in our unheated garage, wishing I had brought ear protection. And a coat.
Across from me my son, Mike, was bent over our makeshift worktable slicing his way through almost two inches of pine with our jigsaw, while I stood holding the hose of our Shop-Vac, drawing the sawdust away from his curving line. Between the high-pitched whine of the saw and the jetliner takeoff roar of the vacuum, I couldn’t hear anything else. But even in the smoky sawdust haze I saw his mouth forming words and the look of concern behind his safety goggles.
“What?” I said.
He shut off the saw and pointed with exasperation at the vacuum. I shut it off and waited for the ringing in my ears to die away while Mike inspected the blade of the saw.
“It’s not cutting square,” he said. Then he ran his finger along the thick slab of wood showing me where the vertical edge he had just cut slanted slightly outward from top to bottom.
We pondered it for a few moments. “You can probably square it up on the band saw,” I suggested.
“Yeah, that might work,” he replied.
And off we went, as if we really knew what we were doing.
Every now and then Mike and I get the urge to make something, and every now and then we surprise ourselves. I’m still astonished that the 15-foot sailboat we built a few years ago not only looks good, but floats, and doesn’t fall apart in the pounding of a heavy sea. We’ve taken some stabs at building another one, but recently interrupted the latest project to take a shot at one of Mike’s dreams — building his own electric guitar.
He has a few factory-made guitars, and has given one of them some serious electronic upgrades. But the thought of starting from scratch has caught his fancy.
We’ve been at it for a couple of weeks now. The first step was gathering up some scrap lumber from our other building projects and gluing them into a block big enough to make a guitar body. Mike carefully plotted out the dimensions and drew the shape, erased part of it and redrew, and then faired his curves. Then came the jigsaw, the band saw, and the distressing realization that his guitar body was going to end up a quarter-inch too thin to house the electronics. What do we do now?
Every step has been a learning process. I’m sure we’ve done things that would make an experienced craftsperson shudder with horror, and Mike has said several times that it would have been a lot easier to just buy a ready-made guitar.
Yes, it would have been easier. And certainly quicker. A guitar can be bought and played all within a couple of minutes. Mike’s guitar project (working around employment and glue drying, not to mention the time it takes to correct our mistakes) will probably take a month or two — if it is successful at all.
Easier, quicker, and a lot less frustrating. But also not nearly as much fun. We’re having a ball playing with tools, solving problems, and just spending time together. Sure, he doesn’t get the instant gratification of holding a new instrument in his hands, but in the end he’ll have something very, very special. Even if the project fails and the scraps of wood never produce a chord, his time will be far from wasted. In the meantime, he works on it and waits as the guitar slowly takes shape.
I was thinking of all this Sunday afternoon when, still brushing off sawdust, I visited a friend who told me about the First Sunday of Advent in his parish. Their new pastor, preaching on the gospel, had reminded his people that life is short and we never know how much of it we have left, and the time to decide to live as a disciple is now. “Don’t wait,” he said. “Don’t put it off. God is calling to you now.”
It sounded like a fine, challenging message, right in line with what Advent — and every day of Christian life — is about.
I was a bit perplexed, however, with other things my friend told me about the First Sunday of Advent in his parish. The Christmas trees and holiday lights were ablaze in his church, Christmas carols were making their way into the instrumental music, and the crèche was set up, complete with Baby Jesus in the manger.
Did the pastor feel that the gospel message of not waiting, not putting things off applied not only to discipleship, but to the celebration of Christmas? Why else would he have displayed all these signs a month before the Christmas season starts?
Now before you get worried, let me hasten to assure you that this is not one of those Scrooge-like diatribes against people who put their Christmas trees up after Halloween or attend Christmas parties in mid-December. We’ve all heard the arguments: Christmas starts, not ends on December 25; it’s important to let anticipation grow in your heart through the celebration of Advent; you wouldn’t take a cake out of the oven when it’s only half baked, or celebrate the Easter feast in the middle of the Lenten fast, so why pay so little attention to Advent and rush Christmas in the door?
There’s nothing wrong with these arguments, of course. I find them all valid and compelling. Just as Mike will receive gifts aplenty by not giving in to the urge for immediate guitar gratification, so there are gifts aplenty for those who slow down, wait, and let Advent be Advent.
But it’s a hard sell, especially in a culture that’s moving in a different direction and carrying us along with it, whether we like it or not. Who would refuse to go to their child’s school Christmas play or concert, or skip the office party because these events are held in Advent? Who would cover their ears at the mall because “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is playing over the loudspeaker instead of “People Look East”? Who would turn off their TV during Advent just because the Hershey’s Kisses are pretending to be a bell choir playing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”?
No, as much as I wish we could all keep a pure Advent — and what a marvelous gift it is when kept well — Christmas will keep popping up in the middle of our Advent calendars, and the lights of the Christmas trees will sometimes outshine our Advent wreaths.
But, really, isn’t the whole Christian calendar like that? We do celebrate Easter in the middle of Lent — every Lenten Sunday is the day of Resurrection, as is every Sunday of the year. Every Mass is, in a sense, a condensed Triduum, a memorial of the life, passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord. Every day whenever we live as disciples, we celebrate the Lord’s incarnation — that God joined with humanity in the person of Jesus, so that we could share his life in God.
We don’t celebrate Advent apart from our core belief that Jesus has already been born, or Lent apart from the core belief that God raised Jesus from the tomb. Theologians describe this as the paradox of the “already” and the “not yet,” both coexisting in a Christian world of ambiguity and tension. It means having and not having all at the same time. We prepare for a birth that has already happened. We celebrate a birth in us that has yet to be fulfilled. We are a saved people living in the midst of our own sin, a risen people who still have to die. We are citizens of heaven rooted on the Earth, a people living in the glow of a light still not fully revealed. Being Advent people means learning to live with the tension of being in two places at the same time.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s fine to skip Advent and move full speed ahead into Christmas. We never live only in Advent or only in Christmas; in a sense we live in the tension between them, in the ambiguity between longing and having. And Advent is a wonderful time to think about the deep longing we all have — a longing to have the world be right, and that we might be one with God and at peace with one another. It’s a longing that can only be fulfilled by Christ, in his coming 2,000 years ago, in his return in glory at the end of time, and in the large and small ways he comes to us now.
Sure. It would be nice if everybody kept Advent as the Church sees it being kept: in quiet prayer and joyful expectation, fasting from parties and Christmas carols and lights until the holding back becomes almost unbearable and joy bursts from us on Christmas Eve. But if that doesn’t seem possible, we can still tap into the deep human longing that is at the very heart of the season. Here are 10 suggestions:
• Pray over the news. Every day we hear of human brokenness and tragedy. The world is in a mess and in deep need of being saved. A simple “Come Lord Jesus” expressed in our hearts can help us feel the deep Advent longing to set the world aright.
• As you shop for gifts, remember that all the gifts you buy and give are signs and imitations of the great gift-giver, God, who gives us our world, our life, the Redeemer, the Spirit, grace, eternal life. To give gifts out of love, especially to those in need,
is to share a little in the very life of God.
• Pray for the people you buy gifts for. Besides the Xbox and the American Girl doll, what are your wishes for those you love? In your deepest longings, what do you hope for their future? What do you fear? Share it with God, who has even greater hopes for you.
• Sing the great Advent hymns, such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “People Look East,” even if you’re just humming them to yourself while you drive or sort laundry.
• Set up a daily prayer time and try to keep it. When life gets too busy and you forget to pray, pray about that; let it remind you how much you need God for even the little things.
• Visit catholicdigest.com and spend 60 seconds watching our Advent reflection videos. There will be one for each Sunday of Advent and for Christmas day — they’re a lovely way for busy people to connect to the heart of the season.
• Visit the website of our sister publication Living With Christ (www.livingwithchrist.us), and pray the daily morning and evening prayer offered there — and there’s a brief daily meditation based on the day’s readings there, too.
• When you participate in Christmas activities during Advent, see them as previews of the joy to come, when the world is made whole in Christ.
• Try to make time for your parish’s Advent penance service. Even if you don’t partake of the full sacrament, just being together and praying with others for wholeness can help Advent be Advent.
• Get busy bringing Christ to the world. Michael longs for the day he strums his homemade guitar, but he doesn’t expect it to build itself — he’s working hard to make the dream come true. So must we. God is bringing the Kingdom, but we are expected to join in the work. Who is spending Advent not in joyful expectation but in grief because they are facing their first Christmas without their spouse, or in fear because someone they love is far from home at war? Who isn’t worrying about Christmas presents because of the greater worry of feeding their family or paying their medical bills? Who is poor, hungry, jobless, friendless, sick, or dying as we move into this joyful season? How might you reach out to them? What letters can you write, what causes and legislation can you support to help make the world right? You can’t do it all, but we can all do something to make Christ more present and real in our world. Who is bringing Christ to you this Advent? Who is inviting you to bring Christ to them? Life is full of such Advent opportunities.
What would you add to this list? How are you keeping Advent this year? Please let me know. In whatever way you keep it, may this Advent season of joyful expectation and longing lead you to a very joyful Christmas!