It’s Advent; a season of marvel and awe. A time of rekindled devotion to Jesus, this Child conceived of the Holy Spirit, born to young and faithful Mary, swaddled in a Bethlehem manger, the light of the world.
Advent has a habit of rousing and lifting me, like Ezekiel, to glimpses of unspeakable beauty; of quickening my pace through the darkness.
But not this year.
Two years ago saw the anti-climax of a period of utter darkness and sorrow for me, a terrifying and depleting escape out of a crushing period of my life. I was shattered and afraid and fighting desperately for my own viability and that of my vulnerable family. If this were the footprints vignette, there would have been but one set of prints in the sand. I wrote nothing for Advent. That was 2019.
I began 2020 with a daunting task of healing, beginning a new work, picking up pieces and reinventing myself. I was 44, venturing off with my own fragile family and my own fragile soul.
Then the pandemic.
I was sitting at lunch with a friend in March 2020 and I was reeling. “If the world shuts down,” I told her, “I will take it as an invitation from God to prioritize my healing.” Days later, the world shut down.
I found solace in yoga, longer periods of morning reflection, spiritual direction, helping my kids with e-learning, and dodging the spotlight. It was no small comfort to have the whole world cast back on its heels during a time when I was in such disarray.
I was in such disarray.
Our world was falling into such disarray, or maybe the disarray was merely announcing itself – “the world, in sin and error pining.” Wasn’t 2020 so brutal?
However, as Advent 2020 approached, I began experiencing a renewed wonder. I had been reading Dorothy Sayers’ BBC play The Man Born to Be King, and knew – months ahead – that my Advent reflections were to gather around the magi and their gifts. My spirit began to stir. I began to gather my thoughts. As the Advent season approached, I was writing! Maybe with a bit of additional labor, but I was back – like some movie character feared dead, now coughing to consciousness.
But in rolled the darkness once more.
Each successive Advent reflection became more difficult; the inspirations and logics and structures all breaking apart. (Though, as I go back and read them, they are not so bad.) The effort of holding these elements together was a faltering function of holding my own self together.
I was working with a communications coach in those days. I had asked her to help me develop my communication strength, especially writing, and she encouraged me to utilize this strength in order to deliver bolstering messages back to myself that might be liberating and clarifying. As I sat down to work these out, the darkness became absorbent – “a darkness that could be felt.” It was, as I discovered, my own subconscious shame and self-loathing that were fracturing these efforts. To address myself – to see myself – was to recoil. Any and all “physician heal thyself” attempts were detonating in my face.
It was like having a spiritual autoimmune disease. I felt powerless. It was trauma work.
I’ll not dive into the trauma piece here, except to say that when you’ve had persistent voices in your life that portray you negatively, indict your motives, question your ability to discern reality, and resort to scorn and spite, it gets coded in – important pieces of our source-code get corrupted. More than that, as I’ve learned, the actual logic-board (“the hardware”) can be damaged through trauma as well. It can be repaired, but it does take work – and time. Triggers are real, C-PTSD is real, the mental disordering is real – disrupting the self in ways words cannot fully reach.
I have spent the better part of 2021 doing “trauma work.” It’s not as fun as it sounds!
Nevertheless, as Advent 2021 approached, I was experiencing that familiar flicker. An Advent series came into view: reflections on the four angelic announcements, each containing a version of the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” I began gathering my thoughts around these four episodes – Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, respectively – even creating cool header images. And I began to write!
But – wouldn’t you know it? – the fear overtook me!
Fear of what, exactly? I wish I knew. In fact, I’d hoped writing these reflections might dislodge some of that fear. Instead, these pieces will be shelved for now. And I’m still waiting – “how long, O Lord?” – with dozens of writing projects weathering behind my home like a salvage yard. Does it make me sad? Yes. Does it exacerbate the shame and self-loathing. It does.
The story does not end here.
I promised a small Advent reflection, and here it is. In the rubble days of rebuilding Jerusalem, the consoling prophet Zechariah urged, “Do not despise the day of small things.” (4:10) The word small could be translated insignificant, and of course we are tempted to show contempt for such things, especially when we’ve invested such vigorous effort with so little to show. “These feeble Jews!” the onlookers gawked, “If even a fox stepped up on that wall, it would fall over!”
They ridiculed, “Will they restore things? Will they worship? Will they bring these scorched stones back to life?”
This is Advent.
By the time of our Savior’s birth, Palestine had devolved into sectarian intrigue. The day of small things had become decades; then centuries of smallness. Now an occupying force debased this tertiary territory. Rome! Rome was significant! People had taken to calling it “The Eternal City.” Wasn’t that supposed to be Zion? What a joke!
So there was intrigue in those days. Herod (“The Great”) was busy making a name for himself. Sadducees affixed themselves to power, Pharisees postured as the true caretakers of faithfulness, Essenes withdrew into mystic asceticism, Zealots pined for the next insurgency. Most folks were trying to scratch out a living, scarcely disturbed by the elongated murmur of insignificance.
And a little baby – one of a multitude – was born in an insignificant structure of an insignificant town. A little baby conceived under a pall of embarrassment.
It was a day of small things; the Day. More despised than opposed. Who would bother about such insignificance, let alone marvel?
Well, some. They were the stubborn ones or, if you prefer, hopeful.
There was Simeon, who’d been awaiting the consolation of Israel. The octogenarian widow Anna, who never missed a day at the Temple. There were the mysterious magi, caravanning westward with their evocative gifts. These had been waiting – at the ready!
In the scuttling buzz surrounding his birth, the hopeful flames of others leapt to life. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. One must imagine little Bethlehem, whom Micah named saying, “though you are insignificant, from you shall come forth a ruler,” (5:2) caught up in the small commotion.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Eventually, it became enough to disturb Herod and all Jerusalem too. And John describes to us the spiritual realm where a fearsome dragon lurked hungrily at the site of this birthing event. Yet the beast would depart unfulfilled. No earthly nor heavenly power could consume this small thing. And though we’re told this dragon has gone to make war on fragile ones such as we are, the darkness of his gaping mouth has never yet overcome the light.
In our elongated days of restless intrigue, what is being conceived? Who knows? But may we be found among the stubborn, or, if you prefer, hopeful. It is an exceedingly rare company and a peculiar one at that. But this entails setting aside the intrigues, both grand and petty, in order to attend small things without contempt. They may seem insignificant but are they holy? They are.
Aren’t we all transporting so much fragile cargo over this uneven terrain? I certainly am. Space can scarcely contain the manifest. It is, all of it, holy, and Advent implores that we despise none of it.
Above all, it means attending to this fragile and holy Life, knowing he arrives for all things fragile. This is Advent.
I am learning as much, while I attentively wait. As I write from the rubble, fending off the voice of contempt. As I imperfectly honor small things. As I prepare to press publish on this piece; the delicate and hoarse whisper, “I believe.”
For unto us a Child was born! Amen.