Today is the first Sunday of Advent. So I chose for the song today the only real Advent carol I know. The version I have found is not well known, but as soon as I heard it, I really liked it. It captures the haunting, apprehensive, introspective mood of the approaching winter season in general and this time of spiritual reflection specifically.
This carol always scared me a little when I was small. Something is frightening about considering the meaning of Christmas and why preparing for it is important. Clearly, Advent is spiritually less demanding than Lent, just as Christmas challenges our faith and credulity less than Easter does. Advent demands no fasts or special sacrifices. It is not launched with a difficult day of atonement. And as Advent progresses, the mood gets lighter, more festive, increasingly celebratory.
But, Christmas is the acknowledgment of Jesus’s entry into this world. His birth is the beginning of what Christians believe to be the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, the human embodiment of Yahweh’s promise to the Israelites, and ultimately the path to redemption for all who choose to accept this. And we cannot forget that his birth launches the life and events that lead to the cross, with all its pain, suffering, and agony.
Jesus’s story does not end with the crucifixion, and at times I believe my spiritual tradition of Catholic Christianity forgets to emphasize this. “We all have our crosses to bear” is a trite saying, but it very much encapsulates a certain quality of thought engendered in Catholics from a young age. I don’t intend to denigrate or devalue the importance of pondering and contemplating the importance of Jesus’s death in any way. But the ultimate belief, the foundation of Catholicism and Christianity, is that death leads to life eternal because of the crucifixion AND resurrection of Jesus.
Advent and Christmas are the inverse of Lent and Easter. If we consider these events not separately but as a connected sequence, then it is not surprising that a certain melancholy and fear accompany this first Sunday of the Church year. But we should not lose sight of the ultimate joy and celebration that both Christmas and Easter afford. Birth is always honored as beginning with nothing but happiness, but the truth is that life also starts with pain and anxiety. That said, while we mourn and dread death, it can end with hope and promise. Holding on to that idea can make mortality easier to bear.
And if we can believe that, it makes it far easier to welcome Emmanuel into the world, once again, with joy, regardless of an understandable ambivalence.