The Shoulder Season of Advent

Sunday, December 6, 2015 - 6:48am
Photo by Zöe Barrie

The Shoulder Season of Advent

My father is a Lutheran pastor, and to me Christmas is chaos.

The few days leading up to Christmas Eve were full of stress-packed activity: rehearsals, performances, multiple services, late nights. The list was long and time felt thin and brittle. We ran headlong into Christmas, like kids who get going downhill and don’t know how to control their speed.

On Christmas Eve, between the 7 and 11 pm services, long after dark, we’d gather around our tree to open presents, yawning and trying not to fall asleep before driving back to church for the midnight mass. Christmas had its own adrenaline-fueled excitement, for sure, and I honestly don’t remember resenting it at the time — and I don’t now. It was just what we did. But it rarely felt reverent and never felt restful.

Christmas is the extrovert of the church calendar (along with Easter, of course).

It’s social and busy. It’s loud and flashy and well-fed and adorned. It’s beautiful and charismatic, and has the most wonderful story to tell. People often talk about wanting a more peaceful Christmas, but, in the end, its call to come and join the party is a tough one to turn down. Christmas is the guest everyone is eagerly watching for. We’re looking out the window, checking our watches, squealing with glee, and clamoring to the door as it finally pulls into the driveway. It’s here! It’s here!

Maybe this is why I have always loved the shoulder seasons of the church, and Advent in particular. It is an introvert’s season.

Advent is expectant and full of hope. There’s also a solemn quality to the waiting — not dour or dreary — something grounded and okay with a close stillness, a quality that honors the waiting itself as sacred.

It is a patient season. It asks us to be patient, too. Advent asks us to make peace with the lingering and reminds us that we can. It gently shows us again that there can be deep joy in that in-between place, that one-foot-in-front-of-the-other pace.

Certainly there is room for both the celebratory and the subdued. I just find that when Advent rolls around my heart is so hungry for that deliberate quieting in the midst of the noise.

The church in 21st-century America does a lot of talking. Advent resets the church as a space for holy listening, something that it desperately needs more of. The church does a lot of deciding and declaring. Advent calls us to reflect on the profound power of being, even — perhaps especially — when we don’t have all the answers.

How can I be a space — simple, open, warm, stilled — that is prepared to receive the smallest, humblest, most vulnerable version of divinity when it comes quietly knocking at my door? Can I welcome a God I don’t recognize at first, a God who shows up in rags, comes from another country, and is dependent on my meager shelter? Am I brave enough for that?

With two young girls, we’re starting to forge our own Advent traditions. There’s not a lot of pomp; trying to decode Scriptural complexities with an almost three year old (or a 39 year old, for that matter) can sort of miss the point, especially at at a time when the most basic messages are actually the most profound and true.

We light candles in the early dark, sing songs, talk about the “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love” of God that we read about in The Jesus Storybook Bible. We ask God for new eyes to see the miracle that intentionally makes its home in the midst of our daily mess.

Last night, Stella — the youngest, loudest, and most kinetic person in our family — sat mesmerized by the candle flame. It lit a soft warm circle around her face and hands, slowly bowing back and forth. She stared, in a rare moment of silence, then smiled. “Look,” she said, wonder-drenched and wise: “It’s reaching for me. The light is trying to reach me.”

This essay is part of a series of reflections on Advent we're presenting this season. Add your voice; submit your reflection.

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Siri Liv Myhrom

lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two young daughters. When she’s not working as a freelance writer and editor, she’s reading, writing, researching, and generally obsessing about human connection — how it works, why it doesn’t work sometimes, and how we can get more of it in real, transformational ways.

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this is so lovely.... now, I understand more fully why Good Friday & Christmas Eve service are always my favorite - I'm an introvert! and, may the light reach us all . . . even the quiet, hidden introverts.

"The church in 21st-century America does a lot of talking. Advent resets the church as a space for holy listening, something that it desperately needs more of. The church does a lot of deciding and declaring. Advent calls us to reflect on the profound power of being."

It's been said prayer is a way of talking to God, whereas meditation is way of listening to God.

When we speak aloud or think (internal talking) we use symbols, words and metaphors, which all describe truth, but are not truth itself.

When we listen, we receive God in silence and eperience truth directly.

When I read your article I imagined Christmas as a loud and colorful (and wonderful) prayer and I thought of Advent as a silent, calm (and wonderful) meditation.

Thank you.

Thank you, Scott, for this reflection. What a wonderful image, and what a beautiful way of saying it.

Siri - I do believe you are still my favorite word smith. Thanks for the reminder of why Advent is my favorite time of the year. Blessing to you and your family, D-rae

Darla-rae! This is great -- what a joy to see you here. Blessings right back.

Thank you so much for this. That image of Stella contemplating the light--until she saw its reach for her--was a beautiful picture of what I need to make time for in the busyness of this season. What a timely reminder.

This is really beautiful. Thank you.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

I love this so much. Not only because I completely identify with the introverted character of the season and love it for similar reasons, but also because I identify the need to create the space in the church for holy listening, particularly in the age of 24/7 news cycles. There is so much lost in the compulsion to provide an immediate response, when, in many cases, silence and lament is required. Only then, I think, can we recognize the light trying to reach us.

Thank you, Siri, for this amazingly beautiful reflection! Advent is my favorite season of the church year as well. It is a deep time of waiting and watching and wondering......and that can only happen when I intentionally enter the stillness offered by taking a breath.

The shoulder season is an apt term for the contemplations and rituals of advent that celebrate the Nativity free of Christmas glitter.

Jesus, The Light of the World, is trying to reach us all. Takes a child to notice in mesmerized wonder that The Light is trying to reach her. Do we adults notice?

Thank you. I'm reading this at 2:30 in the morning, awakened by a thunderstorm raging outside, with an Advent sermon ready to preach in a few hours. This is the quiet reflection I needed for my own soul just now.

This was a beautiful, thank you for publishing Siri's essay. My husband and I live between two mountain passes in Oregon and a long days drive to either of our adult children's homes, being senior introverts we developed our own private celebration. For the last ten years we have reserved a place at one of the nicest restaurants in town that serve a traditional holiday meal in the afternoon, then we walk just down the sidewalk to the movie theater where we join other quiet introverts for a movie. Simple & sacred in its own way.

Thank you so much for your beautiful thoughts. So inspiring, love the different perspective.
This has been a season of listening and reflecting.

We stand in a through-way of our small home each night. On the way hangs a tin panel with 25 small tin pockets like little half buckets. Inside each pocket, my six year old daughter stash a bit of paper with different prayer intentions. Our family advent practice this year, we gather together, lite a candle, my daughter fishes a bit of paper from the pocket and we focus a prayer on the intention. Simple, honest, prayerful.

Well, not so simple. We are a family, three small children, school, jobs, cats to feed, dinner to make, teeth to brush, dishes to clean, laundry to fold, gifts to find and sleep to have.

These past few nights, I notice how hard it is to concentrate on our intention. We stand in the through-way, candle lit. I am holding my toddler son trying to keep him from reaching the flame. My daughter's inertia keeps her precariously close to touching the flame with the sleeve of her baggy polyester flammable pajamas and my new infant daughter roots aggressively in my wife's arms. Dinner dishes remain on a dirty dinner table. There is one child to put to bed, another after that and a houseful of small chores to do before we both get to bed at a late hour.

It is hard to concentrate and send a meaningful prayer to our intentions. It feels awkward and inconvenient. Our prayers for these intentions too, the poor, the outcast, the ill, the marginalized, the children, our friends, our family, our passed on loved ones, the Earth. These are things I feel strongly about praying strongly for. And I feel so distracted in the moment.

But I get a chance late at night to read. I read a translation of the book of Luke. I have been thinking of the Christmas miracle as an Encounter with the divine. The beginning theme of the Way of Jesus of Nazareth. That God comes. And Spirit comes. It is messy and inconvenient. The birth of Jesus happened on a through-way. Everyone had chores to do, places to be, things to take care of and yet, God came in the middle of all that and came humbly. Spirit comes in the middle of things. God comes in the muddle of things. flame

The Way of Jesus of Nazareth is not one of convenience. There may not be time to concentrate or stop and wait for a more appropriate time for the door to be open. An encounter with the divine will happen in the middle of chaos when there is cleaning to be done diapers to change. There is controversy and adversity and the Spirit breaks through all of that.

My prayers to be aware and ready to receive the moments of the Encounters.

Ms. Myhrom, your reverent and marvelous essay about the "shoulder seasons", particularly Advent, is the light reaching me. My gratitude to you and your family for this cherished gift, which I look forward to revisiting for years to come. Thank you.