a year of morning thanks
I wasn't brought up with the traditional church calendar, so I must admit I'm still something of a rookie when it comes to this "advent" thing. We light advent candles, in great part because it gets kids up on stage and no church in town wants to be left behind. I'm sounding like Mr. Scrooge. I know what advent means--all that waiting--but, to be frank, quite often I just don't get it.
But last night, when I got in a van for a little trip out of town, I sat down on a cold back seat, my billowing winter coat puffed up around me so wide I felt like the Michelin Man. The heater churned out heat, so it wasn't icy cold inside and no one was freezing; but travel, in cold, cold temps creates its own crisp cacophony--snow squeaks beneath the tires and the wheels seem to jolt beneath you as if they're square. Steam trumpets with every sentence, reminding me of the old joke some cowboy once told about how it was so cold they had to grab their steam in chunks and thaw 'em out to know what it was they were saying. It ain't pretty.
Last night, for the first time this season it was clear we were coming uncomfortably close to the level of shivvers that arrive only when you're in bleak mid-winter's icy hands. I felt it in the elements, and I wanted nothing of it. I didn't find it exciting. The thought of the ancients around here warming bricks and putting them at their feet while aboard their jingling sleighs--or for that matter, in their beds--didn't excite one iota of nostalgic glee. It was drop dead cold--in the language of the church calendar, I can even swear: last night it was, for the first time, damned cold.
So I'm thinking this morning that maybe frigid cold is part of the whole advent thing--a season of hope-filled waiting. I know of two long chains of field stones, each of them laid down by Lakota people, those chains pointing exactly, I'm told, at the position of the sun at winter solstice. To me, those lines make all sorts of sense because in a clock-less world if you can determine the very time when the days begin to get longer once again, you can feel some assurance of at least of this much--that eventually, someday soon, you'll be freed from the prison of deep mid-winter. So you wait in the late December darkness, your fingers and toes near the teepee fire, but your heart and soul warmed with the true knowledge and the firm conviction that someday soon the end will come. That's a kind of advent I understand. And it all came to me last night--in the cold mid-winter.
But then, in the church of my youth, nobody ever said anything about advent. We were who we were and we were nothing if not exclusive. It's that deprived childhood, I guess, that makes me cynical about advent, and makes me no less sure of something that old exclusive church full of wooden heads made clear: it was dumb to say He's coming, because, good night, He's here and, doggone it, we'd better get to work in His kingdom and His world. Hocus, pocus advent. Just plain silliness. He's not coming, He's come--so all year long, preach Christ and him crucified. Who needs advent?
Things have changed. Nowadays we light advent candles ceremoniously. I just may well be too old to catch the drift.
What I'm saying is, last night, in a cold, cold car, on a crystal clear night, puffing burgeoning clouds of steam, the fresh snow cracking beneath every footfall, I felt midwinter's icy stiletto between my ribs and didn't like it at all. But that steep chill--even though I felt it for the very first time only last night--made me remember to hope that, yep, someday soon, once again, we'll be out of that dang prison, someday soon we'll be free, and someday soon the light will return.
We've got some good-sized stones behind the barn. Come the 21st, maybe I ought to put down a line toward the rising sun.