One of the debates that regularly surfaces at this time of year is when we should begin celebrating Christmas. The Advent purists argue for Christmas Eve; those with a more relaxed attitude simply go with the flow and start celebrating on 1 December; and people like ourselves do a kind of dance between the two. Our liturgy and our private modus vivendi is Advent through and through, but our public face is more accepting of the fact that most people find such distinctions baffling. Of course, we have the advantage of going on celebrating throughout the Octave and the Christmas season, but here and now we are trying to maintain the spirit of joyful expectancy that characterises Advent. How do we do so in a world that doesn’t really like waiting for anything and is always keen to brush anything negative or difficult out of sight?
I think we start with silence. Usually we begin Advent with three days of total silence. That didn’t happen this year because we had a prolonged power-cut to contend with, but the quality of silence we try to maintain is important. It is easy to fill our silence with noise — an endless inner chatter, our explosive reactions to events, too much self-indulgence in social media. It is when we begin thinking about these that we realise how addicted we have become and how difficult it is to assert any kind of discipline over ourselves. Yet, if we are to have anything worth saying, we do need to exercise some restraint. One area I think about particularly is my use of humour. Bad jokes abound at this time of year. Most are just not very funny, but some are wounding and offensive so we need to take care. That doesn’t mean calling others out for not meeting our standards: it means calling ourselves out for having got the tone wrong or not thought sufficiently about the consequences. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but not at someone else’s expense.
I think we also need to think seriously about how we share our good fortune with others. It is easy to make a donation to a charitable organization or pledge a small amount of our time to lending a hand at a soup kitchen or facility for the homeless. Here at the monastery we try both to give of our abundance, as it were, and make time for the people who write to us. There never seems to be enough time to answer every letter, card or email but we do try, and that is what matters. Once upon a time we did not write at all during Advent (being ultra-purist). Now we content ourselves with trying to limit telephone calls and the less helpful kinds of interaction.
My third suggestion comes from thinking about today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 40.1–11. Forget, for a moment, your favourite musical setting of those words, and concentrate on the meaning. God in Christ has forgiven us utterly. Forgiveness is never easy, especially if we think we are the one doing the forgiving. We are not so noble, nor so strong. But if we are to unite our Advent with our Christmas, our longing with its fulfilment, we have to take on board the need to forgive and to accept forgiveness. In other words, we have to let Christ be born anew in us every day of our lives. Then indeed we can agree ’tis the season to be jolly, can’t we?