the first light: patience
Advent is a season of patience. It begins, it seems, as we wait for the days to begin to get longer. For me, as the days get shorter and shorter in December, the darkness that comes earlier in the evening is sometimes unbearable. And yet, when I drive home after a long day and darkness surrounds me, the beautiful Christmas light displays seem to light my way home. I love the way Chester County provides so many open vistas, so many fields and rolling hills, where I can spot lovely houses outlined with lights, some multi-colored, others clear; some displays so over-the-top and others more understated.
As it was mentioned, we recently lived in Southeast Asia for a couple of years. Our first Christmas in Singapore, we moved heaven and earth as we arranged for our adult daughters to visit us in Asia for the holiday. With the flights booked, I began to realize that I hadn’t brought any of the family Christmas decorations with us during our move around the world. No cross-stitched stockings that I’d made when the girls were babies, no Christmas tree, no garlands or ornaments or Christmas plaid placemats brought out only for a short time every year. The girls would be coming, but I found myself worrying that our modern, 29th-floor apartment wouldn’t ignite the feeling of coming home for the holidays.
Those few weeks before the girls arrived became a whirlwind of my making Christmas in a foreign country. I found an artificial tree, picked up makeshift ornaments along the way, paid way too much to have some new stockings shipped from the US that were embroidered with each of our names, and I baked batches and batches of Christmas cookies. Having been away from our kids for so many months, I had a strong desire to create a “perfect” Christmas. They wouldn’t be coming home per se, but I still wanted their Christmas to resemble all of the ones we’d celebrated with family and friends over the years. As I look back on it now, I realize that I went a bit overboard. At the same time, I am keenly aware of the grace of this experience. As you’ve probably guessed, it turns out that our Singapore Christmas was nothing like those Christmas pasts. But in the process of trying to make a perfect Christmas, I can say now that God presented me with the grace of learning. I learned to be patient, with myself, first and foremost. I learned to let go of some perfect image of Christmas that existed in my imagination and to understand that what was most important was that we were all on the same continent, in that little apartment in Singapore, enjoying each other’s company. I also learned that waiting to see my kids after many months of being away from them was the most difficult exercise in patience I’d ever experienced.
In Advent, we wait in joyful hope for the birth of the infant. This waiting is a sort of holy patience, isn’t it? What I found myself struggling with that first Christmas in Singapore was that the joyful part of that waiting became eclipsed by the worry and anxiety about making it perfect for the four of us in a foreign country where most people didn’t really seem to understand the reason for the season. My focus was on the stuff and not the fact that we were all going to celebrate together on Christmas eve and Christmas morning. This realization, this awareness, and this understanding was an amazing grace. It was if as a switch went off inside of me, and I began to notice the joy and let go of the anxiety. The invitation here, for me, was to have patience with myself, to slow down, and to delight in the moments preparing for and sharing with my family. For any person in Advent, this invitation to be patient with ourselves, and to be patient in our waiting can be a wonderful way to enter this Holy season. To find joy. To breathe deeply. And to be aware of the times when striving for a picture-perfect December has eclipsed our ability to be present to the gifts right before our eyes.
As Michael Taylor says, “Grace happens when human life is lived and celebrated authentically.” And so this is my prayer for all of you: May you savor moments of joyful awareness as grace and gift during this season.
[This material was presented as part of an Advent talk given to women in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Here is the introduction to the talk.]