Advent is upon us and I’m not ready for it. I never am, but I sensed it lurking around the corner. For weeks now, the readings at Mass have been waxing apocalyptic. We’ve been reading about the end times, skies rolling up like scrolls, and mountains being melted like candles. These Advent warnings about the end of the world and the collapse of time and space really put us in the mood for Christmas.
It’s times like these that I’m reminded what an odd duck the Catholic Church really is. Everyone else is busy humming Dean Martin tunes, spraying fake snow on Christmas trees, and plugging in their dancing Santas, meanwhile we’re over here in a dark chapel meditating on the Second Coming and the universe going up in flames.
It’s good, though — the slowing down, the waiting, the patience. In the decade since I became Catholic, this different approach to the season has revolutionized my experience of Christmas. I used to tire of all the kitsch very quickly and by the time Christmas day actually rolled around, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
Now, the celebration of the holiday creates and maintains far more depth and meaning, and when the miracle of the nativity finally arrives, it feels like it explodes upon us in glory and wonder. I empathize far more now with the shepherds who were sun-blinded by angelic hosts on a quiet, cold night, and the magi out wandering in a dimly lit desert with only a single star to guide a distant hope.
There’s a way that Advent, by directing our gaze far into the future, prepares us to look into the past and find it far more meaningful. The birth of Christ isn’t a historical event for me anymore, it’s real life. His birth and his childhood are intimately connected with his death, with redemption, and thus with my present life and my future.
The change has also come upon me with the advent of my own fatherhood. Our first child was born almost 15 years ago now. One of the greatest gifts that she – and all our children in turn – have given me is the opportunity to dive back into the past.
Seeing the world through their eyes makes me excited for even the simplest of adventures – riding a bike, going to the ice cream shop, throwing rocks into a lake. Their interaction with the Mass and the saints opened up a whole new world to me as I relive those child-like ideas I had about my faith when I was their age, how impressed I was with Samson’s long hair and King David’s larger-than-life personality.
For a while there, beyond the years of childhood but not yet a parent, I confess I’d become jaded with all the pageantry. I was desperately seeking what I defined as sophisticated and cultured experiences, wonderful in their own way, but I’d lost the fine art of seeing the world with innocent eyes. Because of that, day after day might slide past without even a single moment of wonder or gratitude. I had important things to accomplish and experiences to gain – or so I thought – and left childhood behind.
That is, until I had children. Suddenly, I was back in the thick of it. Hour-long wrestling matches, yelling war cries and tumbling down secret paths in the woods, coaching soccer practices with a mob of kids kicking my shins during a team exercise. It quickly became apparent to me that my future, if it was to be a happy one, was dependent on my ability to recapture the past. Not that we should regress into small children or refuse to mature or develop, but that our progress shouldn’t be so eagerly sought that we abandon important pieces of ourselves.
We can retain that child-like innocence and wonder. Being a father has returned me to that, but this second time around, I’m a different person. I have more gratitude for it. I appreciate every moment.
Advent is like becoming a parent. It returns to the past in order to give us hope for the future. Christmas isn’t all memory and nostalgia and sentimentality, it’s a living and active miracle. It changes us right now in the present moment. It shapes the future.
Watching my children play and reminiscing about when I was their age, I discover within myself great anticipation for the future. I cannot wait to continue down the path of life with these people I love. Ultimately, balanced right there between past and future is the present moment, one that I intend to live to the fullest.