It used to be that, once the celebration of Thanksgiving was over, I would go to the windows almost every morning, looking for snow. It is one of my earliest memories, a tissue of images held together by feelings that always had something to do with expectancy.
For children of other countries or climates, the prod might not have been Thanksgiving or the thought of snow, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the early days of Advent were, for Christian boys and girls, eager ones.
Some children had Advent calendars, others had wreaths decked with candles. Many observed the strangely prophetic feast of St. Nicholas, with its long stockings bulging with many small promises of greater gifts to come.
Songs changed with December. Worldly anxiety combined with hope in “You better watch out ... Santa Claus is coming to town.” The “Dance of the Toy Soldiers” made the spine tingle. And church hymns deepened everything: “O come, O come. ... ” “wake, awake, the night is dying.”
Advent is anticipation. Jeremiah thrives on it: “The days are coming when I will fulfill the promise. ... I will raise up a just shoot . ... He shall do what is right and just in the land. In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem secure.”
Advent is promise and prayer. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians brims with desire: “May the Lord increase you and make you overflow with love. May he strengthen your hearts.”
But the high hopes of both Jeremiah and Paul were electric with apprehension as well. They both wrote in ages of turmoil and threat. Jeremiah felt cold exile and utter loss. Paul wrote to a community besieged by change and alien powers, in words apocalyptic. There was much to fear.
Fears, too, are feelings of childhood. We commence our lives with such daunting vulnerability. The unknown, the unmanageable, the treacherous are everywhere. We await the return of the familiar all the more urgently: the reappearance of the parent gone a mere few hours; the replay of surprise joys we beg our parents to repeat once more; the clinging to comfort when doom approaches.
In another Advent, perhaps my tenth, I saw the face of a child go from death to life. She, a mere three years old, was with her mother on a Christmas-shopping day. In the aisles of an enormous department store she lost the center of her life, who happened to be thumbing through bargains on the other side of the world—an insignificant clothing table away.
The child’s temple collapsed. Her face blotched with high shame and sorrow. Sobs erupted with instant convulsion. And then the mother swooped from nowhere to cradle the girl in arms that transformed the shrieks into tears of relief and joy.
Life, from its beginning, bears its gloomy portents. They need not presage the end of the world or even the fall of our mightiest temples. But any child can suspect that all might easily be lost. As Freud reminded us, we begin to die the moment we are a-borning.
Today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, the discourse on the destruction of Jerusalem, has Jesus speaking to our hope in the midst of doom. He invokes the imagery of all our primal fears: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars.” Jesus tells of nations in anguish. Seas roar, waves crash upon us. People die of fright.
Darkening skies, longer nights announce the winter of life. But the child in us looks for the sign of love in the sky, the rainbows of fall, the snows that brighten the earth, the arms that reach down to lift us up. We love to light the candle that dispels the dark. We can’t wait to open the next window on the Advent calendar.
And so, even with portents of the end times, there is the promise born: We will “see the Son of Man coming on a cloud. ... When these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, for your ransom is near at hand.”
Like Israel, like Paul, the childhood we never leave is suspended between devastation and delight. We rise and rush to the window imagining snow. We sit up, alert to songs that promise joy. We attend to the slightest confirmation that our ransom is at hand.
Each ensuing Advent thus reawakens the child in us. And yet, as each approaches and then recedes into the past, our frail childlike qualities mysteriously mature. We slowly come to a realization that there is a deeper hope, a more profound ransom, a truer liberation.
We begin to hope that Jesus Christ’s radiance will be brighter than any snow. We start to trust that his light could be more luminous than all the candles ever burned, anticipating Christmas.