There have only been four times in the last twenty-two years when Christmas landed on a Sunday. The reason I take notice of this is because in my twenty-two year career working for the Catholic Church, that is the number of occasions when I had four complete weeks of Advent in which to complete the gargantuan number of tasks required of me during this season. Normally, December, in addition to being the usual kind of chaotic at home, is a whole other kind of crazy at work. There tends to be lots of extra duties, all with shortened deadlines and while it is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, I normally find myself facing it with a dreadful sense of angst. This is a terrible thing to be thinking in my head. Admitting it publicly? Worse yet! The most discouraging aspect is while I truly believe in the meaning of Christmas, allowing it to have power in my life in the midst of the chaos is a mighty battle.
This year was no exception. Cyber Monday quickly brought me to an unusally high level of panic that steadily rose as my email inbox kept filling up with coupon codes and chances to save. As I sorted through them and deleted the ones that weren’t appealing, the inbox continued to replenish itself with more and more promises of savings unlike ever before! The need for order and control in my life reared its ugly head and this deluge of information threw me into a tailspin.
Yet if I am honest, the nosedive began weeks prior to Cyber Monday. If I had to pinpoint its start, it was at the very beginning of November when I set off to shop for an event I was to host later in the month. In my search for some autumn inspired home goods, upon entering most stores, I was immediately assaulted with an onslaught of bright lights and sparkly Christmas goods. Finding the muted tones of browns and oranges, teals and burgundies almost merited the creation of a search party. When finally they were found, these remnants of fall merchandise were picked over and already marked on clearance!
Shortly afterwards, there was the day when my first grouping of preset radio stations in the car were playing commercials, so I switched over to the second set. Lo and behold, one of the preset stations was playing Christmas songs—yes, in the first days of November. And then there was the next day, just after we switched to daylight savings time. I was driving to pick up my husband from the train station. Normally it would be light outside, but now it was dark and immediately I noticed the many houses adorned with Christmas lights. While it does get cold here in December and I quite admire the wise planning of those who use one of the unexpectedly warm days of November to check this job off the list, I felt angry when confronted with all the lights. Must they be lit three weeks before Thanksgiving? It was as if all of the forces of the external world were conspiring to make me feel the dread and pressure and chaos of celebrating Christmas NOW!! I truly resented it because I felt as if I had not even had any time to anticipate its arrival.
When counting my blessings this year at Thanksgiving, I found myself deeply grateful to have been raised a Chicago Cubs fan from the cradle. Memories of my early childhood are sprinkled with a plethora of hot and humid summer days, when we gathered in the “Rec Room” (the coolest spot in the house) to listen to the voice of radio announcer Jack Brickhouse give us the play by-play of the game. Occasionally, Mom would drag us three kids into the city where we would then catch the “L” train to the north side. Wrigley Field was larger than life. It was magnificent; a place where dreams loomed large.
Recent weeks and days leading up to their big win after 108 years were thick with possibility and power. One cannot explain it adequately with words. Some of the special commercials and video compilations came close, but being immersed in it was nothing short of other-worldly. Even 45 miles west of Wrigley Field, out here in the suburbs, there was a magical feeling among the people, everywhere you went. It delighted the senses. It was as if you could touch and taste, see and hear it. Hope incarnate. Hope, pulsing through the hearts and veins of a people waiting for the fulfillment of a long-held desire. I remember thinking in those days how blessed I was to experience the fruitfulness of what waiting can accomplish in the mind, heart and soul. It strengthened the character of Cubs fans as they persevered in supporting a not-good-enough team for 39,420 days; it bonded generations and families together with a common purpose and longing. The anticipation, the wait; it brought such meaning to every moment we spent drawing closer to the arrival of the day of redemption to the north side.
No matter where life took you in those days, you couldn’t help but overhear many a person’s story of their wait for the fulfillment of this hope.You heard it being discussed among a group of strangers standing in line to check out at the grocery store, at the Starbucks between barista and regular customer; heck, I even had lifelong Sox fans wish my team the best and admit their love affair with baseball was actually born at Wrigley Field. There were stories of the 108 year old woman who wanted to see the Cubs win before she died, of the man who brought a radio and a folding chair to his father’s graveside so that they could listen to the games of the World Series together. This collective wait; it was a vessel through which joy, unity and inspiration was born into an otherwise divisive world.
The climax of the wait was experienced in, what I will argue as, THE MOST incredible World Series known to baseball fans. The ups and downs of each game in the series were almost unbearable. And the rain delay in Game 7? It had us all hanging on the edge of our seats. I don’t even think that the greatest script writer of all time could have written a better ending to this story. The recording of the eruption of joy heard outside Wrigley Field (an entire 350 miles away from the actual scene of the victory) at the very moment when we clinched the title of World Champions will never cease to awaken me to the unimaginable miracle that occurred that day.
The day of the Chicago Cubs victory parade found my husband, my big brother and I gathering at the home of our almost-80 year old parents to watch the coverage on TV. The crowds were rumored to be large and predictions of traffic nightmares were ominous. We chose to bunker down in their house to rejoice in the gift of redemption given to our team. Amidst the delicious smells and tastes of famous Portillo’s sandwiches, hot dogs and fries, each of us with a cool, refreshing Budweiser in our grip, we witnessed as 5 million people showed up to celebrate, supposedly making it the 7th largest gathering in human history. The sound of the crowd in Grant Park collectively singing, “Go, Cubs, Go!” was something to behold. What once had been a prayer of yearning, became the melody of our team’s salvation.
In the days and weeks that followed, I found myself wanting to break open the power of what we had just experienced. There was a deep thirst within to unpack a lesson that might have bigger implications for my life. Since Advent was beginning, my thoughts drifted to the people who lived long before me, to those whose anticipation for something so much greater than a Cubs World Series Championship must have seemed endless, to those who spent a couple thousand years holding out hope for a Savior. I could scarcely imagine what the dawn of the Day of Redemption must have felt like for those who, for generations upon generations upon generations, had waited in joyful hope for Emmanuel, God with us. The fulfillment of such a wait must have been astonishingly epic.
As these thoughts continued to percolate, it became clear to me —there is something truly powerful about the wait which serves to expand us. It readies us to appreciate, in a potentially profound way, the fulfillment for which we long. In the midst of this clarity, I committed to cherish this year’s wait for Christmas. In one of those rare years when I was going to have four full weeks of Advent, I decided to slowly savor each of the 28 days and allow them to expand me. Thankfully, the rituals of my faith tradition encourage me to be entirely counter cultural at this time of year. They teach me to sit in the darkness and stillness and to wait. Despite the pressures I originally felt weighing upon me when I opened my inbox or turned on the radio or drove by houses adorned with lights inside and out, I consciously let them go and instead chose to refrain from the rush to get the lights setup outside my house or to listen to Christmas tunes or to cut down the Christmas tree just yet.While the fact remained there were still going to be extra tasks at home and at work, there were also going to be some extra days in which to finish them and the deadlines weren’t as overwhelming as usual. There stood 28 sunrises and sunsets between me and the moment when the fulfillment of hope would arrive.
Entering into church on the First Sunday of Advent, I experienced the plainness of the environment to be a striking contrast to everywhere else I found myself at this time of year. It was stripped bare of its usual beauty, leading my focus to the simple, unadorned green wreath at the front, illuminated only with the light of one single candle. This simplicity was absolutely captivating to my soul. The cacophony of loud, joyful Christmas jingles heard in the marketplace was replaced with quiet, reflective songs all expressing the common theme of longing for light, for redemption and meaning. The process and the power of anticipation replaced the immediacy of the need to be celebrate Christmas right now.
This became the chosen experience I allowed to set the tone for the rest of my time of anticipation. Each of these new days of Advent I have entered with full intention and permission to immerse myself in the quiet, in the stillness, in the darkness that preceded the Winter Solstice. Slowly and steadily the anticipation has grown. Slowly and steadily the luminosity of my Advent wreath has brightened each week with the lighting of another candle. Slowly and steadily the tasks of readying have been accomplished. Slowly and steadily, the sense of hope has increased within and my soul has been expanded. Here on the cusp of the Christmas Vigil, I can touch and taste, see and hear it. Hope incarnate. Hope, pulsing through my heart and my veins as I wait for the fulfillment of a long-held desire: to receive anew the gift of Love Incarnate. Found in the unlikely guise of a babe in the manger, this Love, if received into the open spaces of my soul, has the power to change me. It has the potential to make the unlikely guise of my life a place where He may be found; a vessel through which joy, unity and inspiration may be born into my otherwise divisive world.
Tonight as we sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, what once was our prayer of yearning will become the melody of our salvation. And if we could listen to a recording of the eruption of joy heard in the heavens at the very moment of His birth, I am certain it would never cease to awaken us to the unimaginable miracle which continues this day. Merry Christmas!
O hush the noise and cease the strife
And hear the angels sing
Glory to God in the highest
Glory to God evermore
Good news, great joy for all
Melody breaks through the silence
Christ, the Savior is born!
Jesus, the love song of God!
Jesus, the love song of God!
You’re the love song
You’re the love song
You so loved the world
You’re the love song”
Midnight Clear (Love Song) by Chris Tomlin