Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Advent -- The Spirtual and The Material Collide

The ever-friendly Internet has recently been the scene of a discussion about Christmas and Advent, stress and busyness. An oh-so-very-helpful commenter expressed confusion that a devout Catholic, of all people, could find this season trying and then offered a thought that went something like this:

It's Advent -- four candles -- how hard is that?
Well, this encouraging fella gets The Hilary Rosen Award for Least Insight into a Mother's Life.

(You remember Hilary Rosen. In the heat of the election, she quipped that Ann Romney, a mother of five boys, "had never worked a day in her life.")

I read Hilary's comment and burst out laughing. And so I did when I read Mr. Advent's pithy prescription for a stress-free Christmas. (And, yes, I'm going  w-a-y  out a limb here to assume it's Mr. Advent (not Miss or Ms. and certainly not Mrs.).

Gosh, I'm being awful and judgmental and know-it-all and all sorts of horrid things that one certainly shouldn't be deep in the heart of Advent.

On the phone the other day, a friend threw out the term "Insta-Christmas." Perhaps you're not familiar with this concept. Someone wakes up on Christmas Eve, and, gosh!, the house looks great! The lights, the candles, the wreaths! The kids are all in matching clothes. They're clean! Mom just called to extend a heartfelt thanks for the tasty fruitcake that arrived in the mail. A Facebook friend commented on the lovely family photo just posted. At the Christmas pageant, the daughter's angel wings were sparkling and the son was nothing short of precious as the donkey in the manger scene.

If you're not familiar with "Insta-Christmas" that is probably because  -- wait for it now -- you're a wife and mother.

What is the point of my bombastic screed? It is not to husband-bash. Perhaps it's to bash the mistaken notion that there is The Spiritual and The Material and never the twain shall met.

And there's no such thing as "Insta-Christmas." You don't light the fourth Advent candle on December 23rd, wake up on Christmas Eve, and find "Insta-Christmas." If I fashioned an exclusively Spiritual Advent and saved up the Material for Christmas Eve, I predict two things would rapidly follow: misery and bankruptcy.

Therapy and marriage counselling would probably figure into the equation as well.

Elizabeth Foss has spent years writing about Advent and Christmas. Just yesterday, we read The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, one of Elizabeth's suggestions, and later watched the movie. Thank you, thank you to Elizabeth and all the other bloggers who use the Internet to inspire.
Elizabeth shares ways to make this season beautiful and simple and meaningful.

She never says it isn't work.

A reader recently posed this question to Elizabeth: Do you decorate your house and put up your tree for Christmas before Christmas, during Advent?

And Elizabeth responded: Yes. Yes, I definitely do. When I am expecting a baby, I ready the environment well before my due date. I wash and fold tiny clothes. I freshen the co-sleeper. I find the car seat inserts. I rearrange bedrooms or dressers, as necessary. And I pretty much clean my house from top to bottom and stock the freezer and pantry. It's what I do . . . On December 25, our family welcomes the Baby. Hearts and homes are prepared well in advance.

In the atrium, we learn the liturgical colors. Purple is for preparation. We prepare to celebrate the arrival of Jesus on Christmas Day. Preparation requires effort.

I would be the first person to yell "enough" to the madness and soul-crushing perfectionism that add unnecessary stress and cost, that breed fatigue and greed and envy in a season that is supposed to be about anticipation and joy.

This time last year we had something like eight separate celebrations (dinners, parties, pageants) in an eight day period. No Joke. As one of my friends so eloquently and succinctly put it: Let's just not call it a celebration. Too much, just too much. This year, three of those events have been cancelled, and one has been scaled back significantly.


The first year we were married, I mentioned getting a Christmas tree, and Dave said, "We're going to Michigan for Christmas. Why get a tree?"

"Because I'll cry if we don't," I told him.

We bought a tree.

We've bought a tree every year except for two. One year we were having our floors refinished while we were in Detroit. Forgoing the tree was the smart thing to do. Another year I was just snowed under with all the preparations and thought, just as Dave had, "We're going to Michigan. Why do we need a tree?" We arrived home around New Year's Day, and let me tell you, I have never been so depressed walking around my barren, undecorated house.

There's a fine line between Simple and I can't be bothered. I had crossed the line, and I knew it.

One of the aspects I love about Catholicism is the emphasis on and use of stuff -- physical, material, elemental stuff -- water, ashes, smoke, oil, candles. There is no stark dividing line between the spiritual (celebrating the birth of Christ) and the material (accomplishing the physical tasks necessary for that celebration). The problem as I see it (and live it) is that the pendulum has swung so far towards the material, we barely have the capacity to take in the spiritual.

And perhaps that is what Mr. Advent was trying to communicate.

Elizabeth Foss captures it beautifully:

I am not Martha Stewart. I am an innkeeper. I am preparing a place in my home and in my soul for the Savior of the World. I need to be so grounded in prayer that Christ’s peace overflows from me to those in my home. Let the visitors come. Let them come whenever they want and stay as long as they want. I will make the house warm and the food filling, but above all, I will make certain that the Holy Infant is here. He will be the reason for our celebration. If He can cause the lion to lie down with the lamb, He can handle Christmas at my house. Despite all the other things on my list, I must make time for earnest, fervent prayer, because I know that I can’t do this under my own strength. I must invite the Baby. The only perfection here this year will be the Baby. Because a Baby at Christmas is what it’s all about.

My friend Rachel, to whom Mr. Advent's comment was directed, just posted this:

God loves us so much. Don’t forget that in the midst of your hurry. Those of us running ragged to do right by our family…well, that’s part of the deal. In this season, don’t chide yourself so much. Pray about what you need to do, ask God for joy and peace — and the wisdom to know when you are doing more than you should. And then trust in him. He does fill in the gaps. He’s aware. He’s here, in the middle of it all.
And one of her readers, commented this:

You and BXVI (Benedict XVI) are of the same mind and spirit. When someone tweeted the Pope and asked “Any suggestions on how to be more prayerful when we are so busy with the demands of work, families and the world?”, his response was: “Offer everything you do to the Lord, ask his help in all the circumstances of daily life and remember that he is always beside you” – Happy feasting!



Tricia said...

Thank you for this, Kelly! You are always so insightful, and this post was a great read for me today as I contemplate mustering up the energy to actually decorate the tree!Beautifully put! Thank you!

Kris said...

Thanks for writing this - I said the same to Rachel earlier. It's so nice to know we're all in the same boat trying to balance the "peace" of Advent with the preparation for Christmas.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Kelly! It reminds me a bit of my church: although it may seem like it's just a church service, it isn't "insta-church". The flowers appear because the Flower Committee orders and arranges them beforehand. The Communion is organised by serving elders. The decorations for Christmas are done on a weekday by the Christmas Decorations folk. The readings are done by volunteers from the congregation. The Orders of Service are typed and photocopied by a team of volunteers every Friday morning. The teas and coffees are prepared and served by other volunteers. The church is cleaned every week by the cleaner. And so on...

It's all work, and it's done in order to make that spiritual hour once a week (and a bit of socialising afterwards) possible. And it's the same in our homes. There really are some things that money cannot buy.

I have always strongly felt that a certain materiality really helps my spirituality. I don't think I'd be a very good Quaker or Buddhist for this reason!