A Christmas tree stands a month after Christmas last year. Ashley, who had recently overcame thyroid cancer, kisses her son Trey, who was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis.
(photo: Fred Erlenbusch/Flickr)
Advent Tea was invented by my mother 40 years ago. My brothers were young and knocking over furniture in their pre-Christmas fervor. Mom needed to find some way of marshaling their excitement, so she built a little ritual around the lighting of a candle on a Sunday — something to pull them back to here and now and to take their eyes off December 25th. She took a few simple ingredients: cream crackers (frugal, brittle squares of air and flour), a jar of home-pickled onions, and a slab of cheddar cheese. She lit a candle, and that was it: Advent Tea.
Now my young sons are knocking over furniture, and I welcome Advent Tea as a slower, settled time on Sunday afternoons. My boys’ religious education is a little patchy. When I asked them what Advent meant, they told me “it means crackers.” But Advent Tea does what all good rituals do: it’s a simple, repeated practice that has worn grooves into our years; it brings the weight and depth of shared experience to the moment.
Last December we were far from home, living in Boston, Massachusetts. Back in England, my parents were nursing my grandfather through the final stages of cancer. Advent was about a different kind of anticipation: not of birth, but of death. We knew Grandad did not have long to live. My parents were fully occupied with making his last weeks as comfortable as they could, and yet my dad found time to buy the makings of Advent Tea and ship them in a shoebox to the States. I felt the separation keenly — daily Skype calls are no substitute for being in the room. But Advent Tea connected me with them; I ate what they ate, we all lit a candle, and this invoked a little of their presence.
I’m back home now and don’t need the shared practice to draw my loved ones close. This year, the ritual of Advent Tea is serving us in an unexpected way. We face our first Christmas not only without Grandad, but without my father too. He was vital, active, in his mid-sixties and struck down this summer by a stealthy, aggressive cancer that shocked everyone with the speed of its progression. I got home five days before he died. Our family is depleted: we’ve lost two tender, generous men who blessed the lives of everyone they knew. It’s all too easy to dread Christmas, to seek out all the gaps and silences their absence has created and fill them up with weeping. I find myself angry when explaining Advent to my children; that it’s more than cheese and crackers. I discover that the ecclesiastical construct both baffles and irritates me: the baby’s already been born. Not only that, he’s lived; he’s died; we’ve had the Resurrection. We know the story. So why all this faked ‘waiting’?’ And don’t get me started on the Second Coming.
My rant leads me to look for definitions. (What does it mean, anyway?) Advent, meaning “coming,” leads me to parousia, the Greek word used in the New Testament in connection with the Second Coming. It means “presence.”
And this is what the ritual of Advent Tea fosters: a gentle coaxing to be fully present, to cultivate what John O’Donohue calls “soul texture.” It’s a well-rehearsed ritual, so we don’t need to think about what to set out on the table. The meal is simple. There is no cooking, no performance. We laugh. We eat. We light a candle. My sons fight about who gets to blow it out. As with my brothers, 40 years ago, Advent Tea helps us all to sit still. This year, more than ever, it coaxes me to be right here right now, with all the sadness and the gratitude and joy.
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