Advent Vespers

I crack open the blinds in the kitchen. It is still dark outside, streetlamps glowing like spaceship landing lights in the fog of a December morning. I shamble around trying to secure a cup of coffee. I plug in the lights on the Christmas tree and sit down at the kitchen table, bleary eyed, restless. The house is quiet, the rest of my family still asleep upstairs. I cautiously take a sip of my still too hot coffee. This is me at home in the world, as much as I ever am. It is Advent, the season of waiting and watching, and so I sit and wait.

Advent is a way of finding my place in the world. It situates me in a story – one of a returning king, of hopeful expectation. It’s a season that’s both linear and cyclical, a spiral through the timeline of my life since childhood, coming around each year with its rituals and repetitions as I grow older, my hair starting to go gray at the temples, the frown lines on my forehead deepening. I will, as I do every year, give disappointing gifts (I am a terrible gift giver), I will eat too many gingerbread chocolate cookies, and a blood toxicology test will reveal an unhealthy volume of mandarin oranges in my diet. I will look back over the year and try and figure out where exactly I am in my story so far.

There are many ways of finding one’s place in the world. Here is Helen Macdonald, in her lovely essay, “Vesper Flights” (found in her essay collection here – one of my favorite books of the year):

Often, during stressful times when I was small – while changing schools, when bullied, or after my parents had argued – I’d lie in bed before I fell asleep and count in my head all the different layers between me and the centre of the Earth: crust, upper mantle, lower mantle, outer core, inner core. Then I’d think upwards in expanding rings of thinning air: troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, exosphere. A few miles beneath me was molten rock, a few miles above limitless dust and vacancy, and there I’d lie with the warm blanket of the troposphere over me and a red cotton duvet cover too, and the smell of tonight’s dinner lingering upstairs, and downstairs the sound of my mother busy at her typewriter. This evening ritual wasn’t a test of how much I could keep in my mind at once, or of how far I could send my imagination. It had something of the power of incantation, but it did not seem a compulsion, and it was not a prayer. No matter how tightly the day’s bad things had gripped me, there was so much up there above me, so much below, so many places and states that were implacable, unreachable, entirely uninterested in human affairs. Listing them one by one built imaginative sanctuary between walls of unknowing knowns.

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Easter Spirit

The following is intended only as a sort of informal “theological sketch” – I’m not hammering out a formal argument here, just doing some exploring. 

I’m sympathetic to the (reasonably common) observation that there is an imbalance between the way many North American Christians celebrate Christmas and the way they celebrate Easter. Basically, the idea is that of the two central celebrations of the Christian year it is Easter, not Christmas, which should be the “big” one (i.e. we wouldn’t be aware of Jesus’ birth if not for his death and resurrection), but for many of us Christmas looms much larger in our imagination and lived experience. The “Easter Spirit” just never feels quite as contagious as the “Christmas Spirit.” The best place for me to observe this is, of course, in my own life as the years cycle through: often I eagerly anticipate Christmas but stumble distractedly into Easter.

There are some obvious reasons for the difference. A main one, much discussed and lamented, is that our culture has figured out ways to harness the iconography of Christmas as a marketing device to sell us a bunch of junk we don’t really need. And, um, we like stuff: we like it so much we usually don’t even realize how much we like it. Consumption is an (the?) idol at the center of our shared cultural life, and to the extent that our Christmas celebrations share in the worship of Our-Lady-of-Perpetual-Deals it is unsurprising that the Christmas holiday feels “bigger.” This again, is obvious, and maybe the answer to our question is that we just need to crucify our consumerism (even as our culture will keep doing its best to commercialize Easter) – but that’s easier said than done.

I think there are other reasons too, ones that are interesting to think about, and perhaps might provide some clues for celebrating better, if not “bigger.” Theologically it may be easier to sing “Joy to the World” at Christmas than “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” at Easter because the incarnation is God’s great affirmation and confirmation of creation. In the incarnation God enters into creation, into the particularity of it, and affirms it by being born as a baby. John 1’s echo of the creation story and Luke’s narrative describing the birth of Jesus both make the same theological point regarding the value and goodness of creation. So, there is a certain sort of theological harmony in the festival of Christmas being marked by an enjoyment of the creaturely goods of food, family bonds etc.

But, maybe I’ve just revealed myself to be some sort heretic who diminishes the significance of the resurrection? Isn’t the promise of new life, of new creation that much more powerful of a “yes” to God’s creatures than the quotidian mess of childbirth? If we celebrate a birth, how much more the defeat of death? There’s an existential element to this, I think. We all have some sense of familiarity with birth, and also, perhaps with death, but reports from the resurrected have been … rare. At Christmas we are remembering a birth, a joyful, life-affirming event; at Easter we are remembering a death … and a resurrection. In remembering the resurrection we’re remembering something we anticipate and hope for, something beyond our capacity to entirely understand, rather than something we know happens every hour at the hospital down the street (not that we understand birth and death particularly well, either). And at Easter there’s the horrific death there in the middle – the reality that there is no resurrection without the cross. Good Friday forces us to grapple with evil, death, judgment, suffering, sin, which tends to dampen the festival atmosphere one might find at Christmas. Yes, we find reason for hope in the resurrection, but the reality of Good Friday (and perhaps even more the flat “in-between” waiting of Holy Saturday) often feel easier to identify with than the wonder of the Resurrection Sunday and it would be perverse to try and ignore the importance of the cross in our attempts to celebrate Easter.

So, it’s not straightforward that the solution to a Christmas/Easter imbalance is to just make Easter “bigger.” The pleas from the pulpit on Easter Sunday to “Come on and be happy!” (usually delivered in more pious language) feel forced, at best. I think in part, we (I) struggle to recognize significance and meaning outside a limited emotional range in our shared life together. We can manage happy (Christmas Day – never mind that whole “Advent” thing), we can manage sad (Good Friday – thank goodness it’s only one day a year) and we have Easter (why aren’t you as happy as you were at Christmas?). I don’t think the goal should be to make Easter more like Christmas – trying to generate some sort of emotional response that isn’t really there – but rather to recover a richer, broader range of response as we try and faithfully remember and celebrate what God has done.

Advent Reading

Here comes the winter night. If we were our oldest ancestors, tucked into draughty recesses of caves with blue hands hugged around us as we slept, we’d be dreaming of summer: we’d be using our human freedom to step away from circumstances to wish that all mornings were June mornings, all noons burned yellow in the sky, all days ended in easy heat under green trees. But for us the night laps comfortably around warm houses. From within our walls the cold seems something to relish. The sharp air outdoors drives the blood from the surface of our fingers only so the soft air inside can return it, tingling. The darkness beyond the window glass gives us the black outer frame for winter comforts like a still-life. Red curtains, green leeks chopped for soup, oranges in a bowl. All glow more because they stand out from a border of shadow.

The opening of “Winter Night”  in Francis Spufford’s essay collection, True Stories & Other Essays (which is as good as one might expect). I don’t have any new recommendations to add to my previous Advent reading ideas (which I still think aren’t too bad). It’s not that there isn’t other stuff out there, I just haven’t really had time to search out new texts for the season.

A lot of my reading this time of year is now taken over with toddlers’ picture books about Christmas and Advent, and I have to say that most of them are pretty bad (ranging from the foolishly sentimental to what can only be described as crass money-grab schemes by publishers trying to cash in on Christmas consumerism). A notable exception is Song of the Stars, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Alison Jay (and I’m sure there are others out there that I’m forgetting or haven’t found yet) which captures the links between the doctrines of creation and incarnation. The book illustrates well the idea that in the incarnation the Creator has come to his own creation – as Athanasius … or Irenaeus … or Gregory Nazianzen (one of those old, bearded guys, anyway) says – and they’re really just echoing John 1 – which should get more Advent season airplay in our contemporary moment. So there you go, I’ve given you an Advent reading recommendation after all.

Advent Reading: A Miscellany

Christmas Eve! Five
hundred poets waited, pen
poised above paper,
for the poem to arrive,
bells ringing. It was because
the chimney was too small,
because they had ceased
to believe, the poem passed them
by on its way out
into oblivion, leaving
the doorstep bare
of all but the sky-rhyming
child to whom later
on they would teach prose.

“Nativity” from Mass for Hard Times (1992) by R.S. Thomas

In recent years I’ve been trying to read something related to Advent in the weeks leading up to Christmas (in addition to the usual biblical texts). Unfortunately, while Advent inspires many writers, the results of their labors are often less than inspiring. Christmas stories and poems are frequently sentimental (or unduly bleak in an attempt to avoid sentimentality), didactic, or just plain boring. Part of the issue (I think) is that the Christmas story feels familiar even when it’s not; elements of it have been cooked into our culture and it has been twisted and used for all sorts of ends. So, in the past couple years as I’ve searched for something to read, part of what I look for are texts that approach the story at an angle and make it a little strange again. This is an idiosyncratic, limited list, but if like me you’re looking for one or two things to read this Advent season to try and see Christmas a little more clearly, maybe it can be of use.

Short Reads

All pieces that will stick with you for days but can be read in about the time it takes to drink a mug of cocoa (for a couple of them, a very large mug). Where I can, I’ve linked to a copy of the text where it can be read online.

Long(er) Reads

These are works that may require multiple cups of cocoa (paired with some ginger chocolate cookies – and after all the cocoa and cookies, maybe some brisk walks to think them over) but can be comfortably read over the four weeks of Advent. 

  • For the Time Being – W. H. Auden (I read this for the first time last year and am re-reading it this year. If you’re wondering if it might be your cup of tea, Alan Jacobs’ introduction to the critical edition he edited is here).
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis (I plan on writing a post on reading this book during Advent later in December so … stay tuned?)
  • Silas Marner – George Eliot (I’ll admit this seems like the oddest choice, but I re-read it earlier this year and was reminded how much I enjoy Eliot’s little book. Silas Marner is a thoroughly secular 19th century fairy tale but it is the story of a poor child born in questionable circumstances whose unexpected arrival in the depths of winter transforms a life … so, perhaps it takes less interpretive arm-twisting than you might think to connect it with Advent)


Biola University has an online Advent calendar which pairs art with short devotionals, and is worth checking out if you are looking for daily readings.