There’s a stillness to this late-year moment, a harmonic ebb draining down to one single low note: The finest line of last light at the horizon, suggesting an eye closing for good, perchance to sleep, or dream, or drift off completely in the dark.
We are come to Advent season—that’s the name we now use for it, though it’s been around for three billion years in the tide of light across the Earth. This time (for those of you living north of the planet’s Equator) marks the late and last moments of the solar year as it approaches the winter solstice on December 23. Like the symphonic awareness of a person near death, where all of one’s life parades before their eyes, these scant fleeting weeks bear the entire freight of the past year. And what a year that has been!
The Christian season of Advent began Nov. 29 on the fourth Sunday before the Christmas holiday. It’s a time of preparation and expectation — the Latin word adventus means “coming, arrival” from the Greek parousia,meaning “presence.” For Christians, Advent is the threefold celebration of the birth of the Christ, the conversion to Christ in the believer’s heart and Christ’s eventual second coming at the end of time. (Christian time, anyway.) The liturgical color of Advent is purple, except for the third Sunday of Advent, when rose is sometime used. (A rose-colored candle is seen as a symbol of joy.) Many churches hold special musical event featuring carols, Handel’s Messiah oratorio, daily antiphons for the Magnificat at Vespers, and Evensong. (O come, O come, Emmanuel …)
It is a time of penitence and fasting, for keeping Advent calendars, lighting Advent wreaths and praying a daily Advent devotional, for setting up Christmas trees and decorating for Christmas. (Our neighborhood isn’t tops for decorating, but lights twinkle in about every house.) A pregnant waiting, deep in the growing harrows of winter (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, at least).
For many of us Advent recalls a mystical region of childhood, out beyond the capitalist frenzies of the Santa-mad, a brightness in darkness, the sense of something looming which we would later recognize as longing.
As sacred time, it is deeply earth-borne, still and cold (again, Northern Hemisphere) and slumbering under a blanket of snow. All creatures turn in to nest and hibernate. Stillness rules the land. And the canopy of stars in Heaven twinkle with fates we’ll never understand.
In the harrows of earth-time, there has been much wounding and wear. Wildfires burn again in the long California, handing the torch to fires start again in Australia. Millions of homeless refugees look back at their mud-drowned towns across Central America in the wake of two violent and late-season hurricanes. Somalia was just hit by its strongest cyclone ever, a storm which saw explosive intensification. The polar vortex is strong right now, which means that here in the eastern US we’ll see milder winter weather for a time, though it also means colder than average temps for the West. That said, a rapidly-strengthening nor’easter moving up the New England coast turned into a bomb cyclone, with northeast winds at 60 miles per hour, dumping more than a foot of snow and knocking out power to 200,000. A nervous instability increases is register around the world.
And in swath of this earth overwhelmed by human life, the pandemic is nearing its darkest winter hour just as a vaccine nears readiness. It is invisible to most but you will find a deathly stillness attending hospitals filling up with the suffering. Here in the United States, the toll is astonishing and unmerciful and largely ignored.
This year’s Advent season must carry all that, its silver bells ringing with expectation for the new while tolling for the lost.
* * *
Light turns most deeply inward at this final station of the solar year, inching down to nadir at the winter solstice when the new year is born. Though we mark the winter solstice at December 23, the Romans celebrated it on the 25th with a nod to the Sun god Sol Invictus. No date of Christ’s birth is recorded in the Gospels, in 200 AD Clement of Alexandria mentions debate by church authorities; some said April 20, other May 20. The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome on December 25, AD 336. The date gained greater prominence in 800 AD when Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas Day. It wasn’t until the 19th century when the holiday would become associated with family, kind-heartedness, gift giving and Santa Claus.
Personally, I like the idea of Christmas coming three days after the winter solstice, just as my St. Oran was buried three days before Halloween. Something leaps in darkness and emerges on festival day.
When I bother to think about it (and I don’t much) I see myself as postchristian, the son of Presbyterian minister who went on to find deeper clearer and bluer things in the well hidden under the pulpit. Or does that make me prechristian? Or even better, preter-christian, a soul amplified by pagan foundations topped by a Christian edifice toppled by modernity for slowly-revealing mystery. Everything I write is a consequence of that experience: each year, Advent deepens in the resonance of that branching plainsong.
What this means is that personally I find the rites of Christmas to be comforting — like an old sweater — without much angst in its meanings. Like walking on the mound of Rath Cruachan in Ireland, once a vast ceremonial center and now just smooth green humps and then plain. Whatever armies warred here, and sacrifices burnt and gods were worshiped, all now is just smoothness. That’s the Christian empire, reduced to white lights on a Christmas tree in a suburban home. A smoothness.
Several centuries from now, the world may bear faint semblance to this one, largely absent human civilization. Maybe the Advent remembrance then will be for a charging, crashing sentience which only left wreckage behind.
On then to our theme of Advent for Earth! For this week’s challenge, go into whatever mood the Advent season inspires in you and write a poem of it. Light Advent candles, listen to plainsong. What winter landscapes come to you, present or past? And to keep some of this Advent on earth, what new doors are found in the calendar? Do they burn, flood, sicken, loom, appall? Are there Advent registers for our solastalgia and weary reiterations of loss? Is there holiness and healing even in the depths of our grief? What do the bells sound like this night?
I look forward to hearing them in you!
PS: Sarah Connor, who frequently shares here, has created an Advent calendar of daily poems from a diverse community. Treat yourself and make it part of your daily rounds. You’ll find it here.