Advent, the Christian season themed around anticipation, preparation, being awake and alert, is an especially poignant one for me as a father of two young sons. My wife and I know well the stretches of life that were marked by the anticipation of welcoming a child into our family. The nine month waiting periods were filled with hope, excitement, and lots of preparation to get our home ready for the baby once he or she arrived. In later winter of 2012, Andrew arrived on Leap Day and in mid-November nearly two years later, a second son arrived who we named Dominic. These past few years have included some of the most awake and alert moments of my life. Witnessing the birth of new life, hoping for a profound sense of brotherhood for these two sons of mine, soaking in the flood of love and well-wishes from friends and family near and far, and being awakened to the new father and husband I must become with each new day. Most especially though, the arrival of Andrew and Dominic are gifts to us that very clearly remind me of the Christmas message: that God dwells among us, here and now, and that this God loves us beyond our comprehension, which is part of the “Good News” of the Gospel story, the Christmas story.
The “Good News” of the Gospel is only Good News, though, after we are confronted by a dose of bad news. This bad news, as I have experienced it in my own life, is this: we have to lose the life we know (and to which we cling) in order to gain the more abundant one that God offers us. Concretely, we oftentimes prioritize expanding our number of possessions over expanding our hearts, seeking control over others more than seeking solidarity with them, and caring more about being impressive to certain groups of people than about being true to ourselves. Giving up these old ways feels a lot like dying.
I hit a patch of my life about 10 years ago when I felt a gnawing dissatisfaction underneath the surface of what appeared to be a pretty good life. Good job, good family and friends, plenty of material things, etc. I resisted the temptation to ignore the feeling though and over the next few months I sought answers for what caused the restlessness and reflected on my life’s path up to that point. I was awake and alert to my life in a new way… and instead of making my life easier, this period of intense self-reflection in fact made life much harder for a while. I uncovered countless truths about myself – my motivations, my priorities, my fears, and most importantly my heart’s deepest desires. What I really wanted out of life was to love and be loved, to seek God and experience union with God, to forgive and be forgiven, to serve others, to live simply. But a lot of my subtle, everyday choices along the way led me not toward those desires, but instead my choices had led me into isolation, into remorse for the ways I had hurt others, into a fear-formed paralysis, all of which lurked beneath the outward appearance of a good life. It was painful to make these realizations and to make the subsequent re-calibrations in my life to realign my choices and behaviors with my values and deepest desires. After doing so, I was suddenly able to await something better, though I knew not what that might be or what it would look like or in what form it would come to me. But I had hope and faith that something new was on the horizon, if only I could pay attention and cooperate. Fast-forward 10 years and Andrew and Dominic are gifts in a long line of gifts that have followed from that awakening experience. If the cross and Easter have taught me about what to do with suffering in my life, those months of attentiveness, re-calibration, and preparation for life’s next chapters were like a personal Advent experience.
Christmas is not just an annual commemoration of the birth of Baby Jesus, nor is Advent just some sentimental lead-up to that commemoration. Instead, these seasons are a provocative reminder for us to be awake and alert to our lives, to pay attention because God dwells among us and within us! They are powerful calls for our continual conversion because, you’ll remember, Baby Jesus eventually grew up and had big, counter-cultural messages to share about who God is and how we are called to treat one another. We are called to awaken to God’s movement, to turn away from that which has subtly taken over control of our lives and the ways we have fallen into slumber, and to truly live with our hearts attuned to our deepest desires in ways that transform our little worlds and the whole big world. So, let’s be brutally honest: if our Advents and Christmases get defined by the material things that we give and get on December 25, by the stress of trying to make every little party perfect, by staying so busy there is no chance for pause, then I think we may be missing the point. But the Christmas spirit of giving is a good thing isn’t it, you ask? Of course. But the danger of rampant consumerism this season is that the new possessions end up possessing us through the domination of our time, attention, energy, and desire. That’s a powerful spell to have to break when we’re really being called to silence and stillness, to be awake and alert to God around us.
If that feels like I am a Bah-hum-bug, a party-pooper, a curmudgeon… give me a chance here, there is good news on the other side. Advent Conspiracy is a movement among Christian churches to reclaim the spirit of the season. We run a series each year on the Conspiracy’s 4 Themes (Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All). Our readers each year have received posts from Tatum Hunter (’16) about scrapping the idea of making a Christmas list, from CFJ staffer Abby King-Kaiser about loving all and from Ryan Lavalley (’13) about creative stitching. Here are my own ways that I have tried to make practical changes to Spend Less and to ehance my experience of Advent and Christmas each year. With a little creativity, a little courage, a little reflection, we might be able to forge a new way of being this holiday season with the guidance of these topics.
So this year, we’ll have the same topics with new writers. Same hope, new insights. Let’s transform our experiences of these sacred seasons. Follow this blog over the next few weeks. You never know, you may find ways to ease the stress of December, save a little money, expand your heart, or maybe, just maybe, you will awaken to God moving in your life in new ways. Will you be still and listen this Advent?
Greg Carpinello, director of the CFJ, is also an alum of Xavier and a native to the Cincinnati area. In his spare time, Greg can be found in his woodshop or his yard, but these days, “spare time” is a rarity. He is kept busy by two energetic little sons!