Each year Advent presents a time for a particular spiritual journey. In order take the journey, and in order to see our destination, we have to be able to clearly grasp what it’s truly about and separate it out from the winter holiday Christmas tradition that the majority of us celebrate—with enthusiasm—each year from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Advent presents us with something of a different spiritual character than the greeting of winter with red and green and all of the familiar festivities.
I recall as a child hearing people talk about having the “Christmas spirit.” We would ask, “Have you got the Christmas spirit yet?” I suppose what we were inquiring about had to do with having a certain feeling that goes along with all the holiday trappings: the music, the food, shopping, decorations—the list could go on indefinitely. For some, especially those who are not in touch the true nature of the Christian holiday, it might come as a surprise to learn that the spirituality of Advent is really something altogether different.
Advent shares something in common with Lent in that it is a journey to a particular destination. In Lent we walk with Moses in the wilderness, and with Jesus to Calvary, and arrive finally to an empty tomb that reveals the hope of eternal life. In Advent too we journey toward a destination, and that destination also bears within it the hope of eternal life. In Advent we journey following a star shining in the darkness, and in the spirituality of the season what lies at the end of the journey is our true focus and all the other celebrations of the season fail to even come close.
The claim might easily be made that the spirit of the winter holiday season, as opposed to Advent, is not a true spirituality at all, but rather it’s mostly sentimentality coupled with some lovely traditions that few of us would ever want to abandon. Still, there’s much more if we only look a little deeper.
To find the spirituality of Advent we journey along the way with Mary. I think this especially gives Advent a certain Catholic character. We journey toward Bethlehem, and walking the pathway with the mother of Jesus we also walk with the prophets and patriarchs in a procession that traverses time. It extends from the beginning of salvation history—from Adam searching for what he had lost—to each one of us, and what makes it especially spiritual isn’t how it feels at all. Rather, it’s the connection that’s created in it by our joining ourselves with all of humanity, looking beyond what makes us different and separates us from others and instead seeing what truly connects us and makes us one.
In walking the Advent journey with Mary, in learning the true spirituality of the Nativity, we learn to be poor in spirit. We walk with one who had absolutely no expectations whatsoever of being the Queen of Heaven, but rather with one who, aside from the birth of the Messiah, would have been nameless in a sea of others who were poor and powerless and on the outside of things deemed important in her time. I imagine Mary as a young woman whose face may have shown signs of a difficult life. She was likely different from our pale-skinned and blue-eyed icons. What was important about her was that she was one whose heart burned true with worship, love, and adoration for the Almighty God. She had no voice in the world except to say yes to God. In saying yes to God she says yes to the justice of God who comes to the poor little ones, born among them as one of them.
Reaching, searching, looking into the depths of Mary we also find the essential things about Jesus. We find a spirituality that we may embrace. It is an Advent spirituality because it’s prophetic. It comes heralding justice, a justice where, in Mary’s own words, the poor and lowly are lifted up and the rich are sent away empty. I can only imagine that such a spirituality might not enjoy great popularity in all circles nowadays.
We might bear in mind here at the close of Advent that the invitation to Advent spirituality, to journey with Mary to a crude stable where a newborn infant is placed on the hay of a feeding trough, is a spirituality that reaches beyond our winter holiday. It’s an invitation to look at life in an entirely different way. One in which we find those who are like Mary living in our world today, and stand in solidarity with them.