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As Darkness Falls

The cold weather has finally arrived. As I write, I am looking out the window and it is not quite dark but there is the sense of an absence of light. The hammering winds of late November seem to tunnel deeply through the walls of our home. The penetrating wind hisses and howls, and at times, it seems to strip us clean through to our very bones, leaving us feeling exposed and discontented.

The day slips quickly by, bound on both ends by a long darkness and we all plod along, feeling like it should be much later than it is. It can take weeks to recuperate from the time change and I’m feeling it more this year than ever before. Perhaps the increase in lassitude this year is thanks in part to witnessing daily battles on social media both before and after the election — it’s a fatigue that is more than physical, it is a longing for light, a hunger for clarity.

This may be the perfect place to be as Advent approaches. I’ll be honest, it has only been in the past four years that I have started to understand Advent as we are supposed to know it. From the earliest days of my relationship with my husband, right through our early years in the Catholic church, my husband and I always followed the same secular Christmas timeline that most of our peers follow. We would put our tree up in mid November and turn our Christmas lights on right after Remembrance Day. Bing Crosby would mark the season, crooning with a voice as smooth as Tennessee whiskey while we talk of Santa and celebrate a birth that isn’t due yet for another month.

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Moving from this early celebration of Christmas to the penitential mood of Advent has been one of the last hurdles of Catholicism that I have had to leap over. In our home, I am the keeper of tradition. I’ll admit that I tend to be a bit controlling when it comes to the delicate Christmas decorations that I have collected over the years but my family has always enthusiastically followed my decorating lead. As my personal faith has deepened over the last couple of years and my knowledge of catechesis expanded, I have felt an increasingly stronger conviction to lead my family through Advent with the same level of seriousness that we approach Lent.

This year feels darker than every year that I have previously lived through.

You and I both know this.

Let’s not pretend that we don’t share the suspicion that the falling darkness might be more than just the impending winter.

I have spoken at length with close friends and family of various faiths and backgrounds and everyone from atheists to our observant Jewish relatives are in agreement that something is different, somewhere within our gut instinct, there is a voice whispering “prepare” to the fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, to those who keep watch. One thing is certain, we can no longer sit idle, we cannot be lukewarm. So how do we begin? Why does it feel like I am preparing the way of the Lord not just toward the manger this year, but His actual return to this world?

And there were in the same country, shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock. (Luke 2:8)

I would like to explain away this feeling of nervous anticipation by finding examples in my personal life that would account for my sense of unease. In truth, however, my life is better now than ever before. I feel nothing but blissful joy in my daily life and I am wholeheartedly fulfilled in my vocation as a homeschooling mother. I am fortunate in my marriage and we live in a home that we love. We have food in the cupboards and Christmas gifts hidden away and yet, it feels like the shadows, growing longer now so early in the day, are also waiting, crouching and following. I glance behind me and I could almost swear that these shadows are deeper, more substantial, blackness beyond black, movement beyond movement.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord. (Mark 1:3)

Despite feeling very heavy with a sense of…foreboding, for lack of a better word, I am a wife and a mother with a daily life to live. I find that I must shake off this sense of the extraordinary to make way for the ordinary. Life does not wait. Over the summer, I began seeing my priest for regular spiritual direction. I could not help but notice a co-relation between his guidance and my grasp on the seriousness of a disciplined prayer life. Trusting the instruction of my priest, I have entered into daily meditation, understanding that I must be silent in order to hear the teacher. It is no coincidence that these spiritual direction meetings have corresponded with my awareness of God’s call to enter Advent with my family as earnestly as possible.

Our Heavenly Father can be so gentle with us, and it is with patience that He has been guiding me to intensify the devotion of my family towards Advent over the last couple of years. This year, He is being noticeably more firm, asking resolute obedience from me. One of the things I feel compelled to do this year is to create a Jesse Tree with the children. In years past, I wrote this off simply as a craft, unnecessary but undoubtedly educational — and let’s be honest here, I hate crafts, which makes me an aberration in the homeschool world. But humbling myself, I have to admit that maybe thousands of Catholic families might just know more than I do. So, when I was going to look up instructions this week I found that God — in the way that only He can — spoke to me while I was reading a passage from Ruth. The passage ends with Ruth marrying Boaz — a love story more inspirational than any romantic film — and announces the birth of their first baby named Obed. Obed then fathers Jesse who then fathers King David. Before my very eyes, as I read this scripture, was the Jesse Tree. I surrendered to the Lords prompting that I do this craft with my children, that we may learn more about the lineage of Jesus.

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Medieval depiction of a Jesse Tree

I have purchased Catholic Prayers for Advent and Christmas by Thomas à Kempis. As in years past, we will bring out the Advent wreath that belonged to my late grandmother. This year, instead of the cheap chocolate Advent calendars that were apparently designed solely for the purpose of causing division and squabbling amongst the children before the sun even rises, I have purchased some numbered cones that hang in a row like bunting. I will fill each with sweets for the children, along with a scripture passage for each day. (Last year I scored some major wife points by making an Advent beer calendar for my husband, but he somehow managed to cut twenty four days in half and those beers never lasted until Christmas.)

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In 2015, our steadfast priest lead our small Traditional Latin Mass congregation in the first Rorate Mass held in decades, if not ever, in our diocese. At this time last year, our four kids ranged in age from one to eight, and I recall having had only three hours of sleep before our alarm went off the morning of that special liturgy. We dressed up and got to Mass before six in the morning. The church was almost in total darkness except for a few candles, softly glowing in front of a statue of St. Teresa of Avila and some in the sanctuary. Even our youngest children entered the pew in silence and sat unmoving, lulled into reverence by the hallowed darkness. The sun rose as Mass progressed, the severe angles of the modern art style stained glass windows became diffused as the warm light filled the church. Together we witnessed night turn into day, and it was intimate, sublime, and incredibly gratifying. That hour was the summation of what Advent is supposed to feel like — starting from a place of bodily exhaustion, a sleepy mind, unaware of what is right in front of you, then the slow transition to light and consciousness as prayers are offered up- the sun rises as The Son comes into view before our very eyes. We are very much hoping to have this experience again this year. I haven’t been able to shake the memory of that Mass and with the realization that we need Jesus Christ even more than ever before, this votive Mass is critical for our understanding of the power of Advent.

Last year, I became enamoured with the Scandinavian tradition of koselig which is otherwise known as hygge depending on which country you are referring to. Our long and bitterly cold winter was made much more bearable with this perspective. After our children are in bed, we light several candles in beautiful candle holders and place them around the living room, we turn on our fireplace, pretend that it is an actual wood burning fireplace, and we pour drinks, dark amber in colour, drinks meant to be sipped, liquid that warms all the way down. Advent At Ephesus plays, and the hauntingly crystalline voices of the Benedictines of Mary rise upstairs to our children, who, on the edge of sleep, must feel like this is heaven on earth. They slip off to the sound of ice clinking in glasses, soft murmurs, and the laughing of their parents. This envelops them in warmth and comfort while November roars outside their windows.

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We take this time of Advent to seriously to prepare our hearts, examining our conscience. Time spent in prayer is noticeably longer, the tone becomes more austere as the snow starts to fall. We spend time filling the cracks in the window frames to keep the cold out and we must do the same in our spiritual lives. We wrap our saplings and decorative bushes in burlap to protect them from the elements. Likewise, we too would benefit from wrapping ourselves in the protection afforded by frequenting the sacraments.

The feast is coming, whether it is Christmas or, ultimately, the great wedding banquet. Both will happen whether we are prepared or not. I reminded my children this past week that their light needs to shine from the hilltops because even the most unbelieving of people can walk out into the dark night and be blinded by the stars. You and I carry within us the knowledge of the great star, the star of Bethlehem whose light heralded the birth of the King of Kings. You and I are the keepers of that flame, He is still among us. Though darkness is falling, we can be confident that it will never fully consume. We shall wait in pious hope for the coming of the light of this world and then, when the time is right, we shall celebrate.

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