Traveling through Advent with grief this year has led to me to soul search about what Christmas is, and, in the process, to notice similarities between the journey of Advent into Christmas and the stages of the soul’s progression into the heart of God. According to Carmelite spirituality, the soul first travels through and away from outward distractions, into inward beauty, then into the deep pain of the dark night when even these lovely interior gifts are removed and the soul’s perception of them and consequently, of God, is radically changed. This happens so that the true nature of God can be apprehended by naked faith and purified love. In this way, the soul is prepared for union with God, and begins to radiate peace and love through His indwelling presence.
Throughout this journey, the soul finds that the things around God, even things that point to or reflect God, are not God Himself. The soul has to learn to relate to all these other things in a whole new way that has to do with loving God as He is in Himself. This is something which God will begin mysteriously to teach the willing and loving soul, who responds to God, in and through this suffering, with more and more surrender and determination. God will transform that soul, making it able to receive God in pure faith, hope and love.
In a similar way, the journey through Advent prepares us for the very real grace of Christmas, which is beyond all of the outward and even inward trappings that surround Christmas itself. We journey through all these things to the heart of Christmas, and thereby receive its true grace.
Advent is full of things that are good and point the way to Christmas, but they are not Christmas itself. I can be distracted by the outward show of the season; the lights, the gifts, the traditions, the social interactions. These outward things can be good, used to serve others and remind us of the birth of Jesus. But they are not Christmas itself.
Even the people in our lives, whom we love and enjoy, and/or who cause us a lot of stress at this time of year one way or the other; they point the way to Christmas because they are our school of love, forgiveness, mercy, sacrifice, and communion. They reflect the love of God to us. But people and relationships are not actually Christmas itself.
The events we plan with our families and friends, as good (or as stressful) as they can be, are not Christmas either.
Our feelings, memories and thoughts, so intensified (sometimes painfully, sometimes happily) during this time of the year, are part of our journey. Our expectations, our longing for unity, joy, peace, justice and beauty, are all from God and are holy. They point us to the meaning of the Nativity, and to the joys of Heaven. But even these are not Christmas itself.
Sometimes I am happy about shared love and memories with family and friends. Sometimes I am keenly aware that I am in deep mourning. Some years I have truly felt that I have known Christmas joy. Other years I did not feel it. But it is still Christmas, whatever I think or feel.
Cultural expressions of the season, social events, our relationships, and even our inmost feelings, all these things, painful or joyful as these may be, are not Christmas. These are things that surround Christmas, that reflect its light.
What is Christmas? Is it just a remembering of the birth of Jesus? I think it is that, but what else is it?
Does something actually happen at Christmas?
I think Christmas is a remembering by us, the Church, that makes present and re-presents an eternal reality. With this remembering, I believe, Heaven cooperates whole heartedly.
I believe that at Christmas, by a special grace, there is a sunrise that bathes every face, a release of extra love and light coming through the heart of the Church, Christ’s Body, that shines on everyone.
The Church prays for it: “Grant….that the the coming solemnity of [the Nativity of ] your Son may bestow healing upon us in this present life.” ~ from the Liturgy of the Hours Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent
Jesus has come into the world and continues to be with us.
Christmas is true no matter what happens with events outside or inside myself, or how I perceive them.
Christmas is real, and that sunrise is there. It’s coming.
The God who brought light out of darkness has shown in our hearts.
-The God who brought light out of darkness has shown in our hearts.
To give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory that appears on the face of Christ.
-He has shown in our hearts.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
-The God who has brought light out of darkness, has shown in our hearts.
~Responsory from Morning Prayer from the Carmelite Proper of the Liturgy of the Hours, Feast of St. John of the Cross.
As a young girl, St. Therese, in her sensitivity on Christmas Eve, had run up the stairs to cry over a crabby remark of her father’s, about a treasured family tradition. Suddenly, having prayed briefly before the crucifix in her room, she decided to come back downstairs, and to everyone’s dismay, she came down a different person; full of love and joy. As she later said, in the time it took to come down a stair, Jesus was born in her soul, and she was transformed. It was a Christmas miracle. She experienced the sunrise of Christmas grace in her soul.
I don’t have to get rid of the busy-ness, or the emotions, or the family time, or even my grief, so I can see the reality of Christmas. I just have to know it, and to have faith in it, and keep returning to it.
When I was a mother of young children, I remember how badly I wanted to sleep in on Christmas mornings. The shrieks of joy from little children on Christmas morning are wonderful; probably not appreciated enough by tired young parents. I did love it. But how I wanted to sleep in!
Now, my children are young women, (the youngest having just turned 18) and unlikely to wake me very early.
I don’t think I will sleep in though.
I think I might get up early, and watch the sunrise.
We have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
2 Peter 1:19
I invite you, for the rest of this Advent, and into the Christmas season, to seek the sunrise.