As I sat listening to today’s gospel at Mass, the first Sunday of the “new” Catholic Mass as it so happens, I was struck by a new meaning of Advent that came to light for me.
As a child, Advent was the precursor to Christmas, the greatest day of the entire year for a kid. No matter how hard the nuns tried to teach us otherwise, I grew up experiencing Christmas as gifts overflowing from under the tree, because Santa knew I had been good.
Nothing the priests at the altar or the nuns at school did could change what was happening in my home, on television, in kid talk on the playground, or in my head while dancing with sugarplums.
Christmas meant kids getting toys. Oh, and of course, the birth of baby Jesus.
Years later after the death of my mother-in-law who proved to be the Christmas Queen and anyone within shouting distant would benefit from her goodness and kindness and joy of the season; the passing of my father-in-law; and then my mother, Christmas lost its sparkle. Traditions stopped dead in their tracks and feeble attempts at making new ones proved fruitless.
I don’t know if it is because we never had children or I just grew up, but something has been missing from this season for a long time, way too long for me to admit.
I tried focusing on the season of Advent and its true meaning according to the Church through its myriad of ways of praying during the season and activities and bible groups. But nothing ever felt authentic or important or touched me to the depths of my soul as those kid times of waiting for Christmas Eve to open the first present, and then Christmas morning the remainder of the booty before Mass.
It is only recently that I have begun to develop a new understanding, or have at least a feel for something that seems honest and real about Advent, and hopefully, Christmas Day.
It started in the early months of this year when I knew I couldn’t continue in the job I was holding down. I needed a change. I tried to come to terms, make nice, make hell, be quiet, be loud. Nothing worked. I decided, around the same time I scheduled my first silent retreat, I would ask to switch positions at my job. I told my boss that I would take anything that was offered, but I needed a change. I told myself I would be patient and not bother him as I had seen others do in past years. Work needed to be done on a budget and I wouldn’t know for months what I would be doing in the fall.
It was during the silent retreat that I realized I had done the right thing, but patience was called for. I was scared. What if I couldn’t do the job I was given? But I promised myself that I would wait quietly in the wings. I would not try to control this. I would let happen what needed to happen without putting my two cents in anywhere.
I waited. Others were placed. Positions were cut. A new one came about and it was offered to me. I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I jumped at the opportunity and haven’t looked back.
This was the beginning of my letting go, learning not to strive to control my life. I found a Zen blog that fits my new outlook on life. I am “de-cluttering” my life, in more ways than one, using the blog’s advice of going at things one small step at a time and only one project at a time until it is a solidly established habit. It is about letting go of trying to control, and learning to trust. It is what I have been told all my life, let go and trust in God. I just didn’t know how to make it real, mostly because I was afraid to let go of the control.
So I let go of my job and then my simple de-cluttering project came along. In October, my husband and I committed to removing one item from our lives every day for a year. If they are sentimental items, I take pictures and donate them. If they are junk, they are tossed. By October of next year we will have donated or thrown away well over 730 items that were weighing us down, having to be taken care of, or just simply in our way.
I will never be a minimalist. I like cozy and warm and that means a bit of stuff with which to surround myself. But that may change. I am letting go of things I never expected I could. I am actually questioning purchases. And if a new item comes into the house, one must leave. It feels good. It is freeing. I feel lighter and less guilty.
So how does this all relate to Advent?
I think my religion is too cluttered. I appreciate the ceremony and standing on the shoulders of those before us. But it has become cumbersome. The so-called radical changes being made in the Mass are plunging us backward to the times before the Second Vatican Council. I’m afraid we are going back to where we, the people, will not be allowed to ask questions, maybe not even be allowed to read the Bible as it once was in times past because we don’t understand it. But I believe it is man who has made religion too complicated.
Today’s reading from Mark, 13:33-37, is short.
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he has told the doorkeeper to stay awake. So stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn; if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’
Father proceeded to explore the usual idea of Advent, awaiting and preparing the way for the birth of Jesus. We are to wait for Him to be born. It is a time of renewal. So we light candles and hope for his coming and the newness of life and His death that will save us. And, the most important part of this is that He will come again at the end of the world to save us so we have to be vigilant and ready.
I understand, but don’t feel. Same story, same approach. But this newness in my head, this de-cluttering took me in another direction.
It is strange how clearing one simple object from my life everyday has forced me to step back, sometimes very far in the past to ask myself why do I have this, bought this, keep this? What hold does it have over me and why?
When I go back far enough, I find it is about control. Every time. I want to remember something. I want it “just in case” I need it. I feel like I have control over the loss of a loved one, that maybe that one item will call her back to life. Maybe I will be warm if we lose power for three weeks and I need that extra, fifth, blanket. Maybe I will need twelve glasses when I have a dinner party. (I don’t even think I could fit twelve in my dinning room!)
So I asked myself about this idea of waiting for Jesus to come and the fact that we don’t know when it will happen. So I stepped back to scripture and thought about the one thing I do know from my studies at the Catholic Biblical School. Scripture is not something to be taken literally. Time and time again, Jesus teaches in parables. He tells us stories about how he wants us to understand his simple request to just love one another. That’s it. Love one another and all else takes care of itself. No one will be hungry, the sick will be taken care of, we will not fight, and we will not try to control every thing life throws at us. If we love deeply, we let go and trust. That is true in every situation where we love. It sounds too simple to work, but if you think about, it could.
So I asked myself is it really that we are waiting for His return? I don’t think so. He is not asking us to wait, he is asking us to use the gifts we have been given. We are not to sit around and wait. We are to take action and He asking us to watch. And when we watch, we see that He is already here in everyone and everything. So it is not preparing for His return that we are being made aware of in the Advent reading, but being asked to recognize that He is already here and that we need to use what we have been given to take care of one another.
Advent is not a waiting game. When we wait, we are not living life. We are not using our gifts. He wants us to live and love with abandon. So it is not waiting for a birth, but reveling in his life within us right now. He is here and we must love, now, not later.
It is the writers of the letters, the early fathers, and all who came after them and before us who shaped a religion with rules and regulations and ceremonies that at one time helped guide those who weren’t able to think for themselves. We weren’t allowed to read the bible because we needed help understanding it. We have rules because we are sinners. We have ceremony to impress God and others with our adoration.
I want to de-clutter my religious and spiritual self. This Advent I will step back, as far back as I can go, and try to watch for every spark of Him everywhere I am. I will embrace the love that shines there. And I will let go of the ceremony and rules and regulations that make me feel guilty because they make me feel inadequate. I don’t think He wants that for any of us. I will let go of the worry that these things bring down on me for now and revel in the simplicity of seeing Him everywhere and thanking Him with all my heart for giving me His gift.