A MESSAGE FROM THE REV. J.C. AUSTIN: LOOKING FOR THE ‘TREATS’
Like many people, we have a tradition of using an Advent calendar in my family to mark the progress of days of Advent and the approach of Christmas. Our tradition is not what has become the most common way of doing this, however. Our Advent calendar is the same one that we’ve been using since I was a small child; it is a handmade calendar with small, reusable felt ornaments that have snaps on the back, one for each day of the month of December, and you simply pull the ornament for that day out of its little pocket and snap it onto the tree.
We did this every year for my whole childhood and adolescence, with my brother and me alternating days for who puts the ornament on. Now, my son Liam uses the same calendar and follows the same practice, except that as an only child, he doesn’t have to take turns!
We had been using this calendar for years before I was ever aware that not only was it not the only kind of Advent calendar, but it was a relatively unusual one. The most common one, it seems, is one that can only be used once. It is bought before Advent starts, and it is a sort of box with little compartments in it, one for each day of December.
And you mark time on the calendar by opening the little doors of that day’s compartment and finding a small piece of chocolate or other treat inside. I have to say, when I found out about these, I was a little disappointed. I could have been having a piece of chocolate as a treat for every day of Advent for years, and nobody told me?!? It’s not as if I was deprived of treats or anything else during Advent or Christmas; we had wonderful celebrations every year. But not many kids would choose a wall hanging over a month’s worth of chocolate, all the same!
Most of these calendars don’t match up fully with the entire liturgical season of Advent, but simply start on December 1; our wall hanging calendar does the same, so we began marking the time this Wednesday despite having already observed one of the four Sundays of the season and several days that followed it.
But it got me thinking, as Liam placed the little felt star on our tree, that while I have deep nostalgia now for that wall hanging calendar, there is something to the ones that have you open a treat every day that I would like to hold up for you to consider.
So much of the reality of Advent really does function as a sort of countdown if we’re not very careful and intentional otherwise; we simply track the approach of Christmas with a combination of excitement and apprehension, depending on how many responsibilities we have for the season and how well we’re doing with all of our preparations. But the practice of pausing to find and enjoy a small treat each day of Advent is actually a pretty wonderful metaphor for how we can truly observe and celebrate Advent in its own right, and not simply as a countdown to Christmas.
So, whether you have a calendar or not, I want to invite you to take up a daily practice of observing Advent along these lines. The Advent devotional we’re using this year as part of our theme, “Close to Home,” would be wonderful to include as part of your Advent practice in this way.
But regardless: as you go through each day, look for the little “treat” that marks that day: something sweet that is a small sign of God’s coming kingdom that Christ is already at work building up and will ultimately bring to completion at the end of time. It may be something that you see, or hear, or read, or experience, but there will be something that embodies God’s love and grace in some small way.
And when you find it, take a moment to appreciate and enjoy it as a sign of what is to come, not simply on Christmas, but in the fullness of God’s love for us and for this world. And if you do, I think you will find yourself waiting in this season of Advent not simply counting down to Christmas, but with a greater sense of its themes (hope, peace, joy, and love) as realities that are alive in the world around us. And that, in turn, will help you to practice the kind of “active waiting” that gives Advent its own power and purpose and beauty.
Grace and Peace,