I love Advent. I love lighting the candles on the Advent wreath, singing mystical-sounding hymns like "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," waking on St. Nicholas Day to candy-filled shoes, and setting up the manager sans the baby Jesus (he hides in the sideboard until Christmas Eve). But of all the things we do to prepare for Christmas, I love the Advent calendar most.
Although I am two days late starting, I want to share my Advent calendar in community this year. Each day, after I open the little window, I'll write a short meditation on the picture for the Sojourners family. Since I don't know what the pictures are in advance, I have no idea where this will take us. I trust, however, that this modest spiritual exercise will lead to a greater hope and expectation in the coming of Christ into our lives and the world.
My Advent calendar depicts the Washington National Cathedral, one of the largest churches in the world, a place of breath-taking beauty and holy mystery. Somehow, it is oddly fitting to have picked the calendar this year. The Cathedral, in the midst of a painful financial crisis, has recently laid-off many of its staff. Like the community it serves, it faces a lean holiday -- forced, as many of us are, to return the spiritual basics of Advent and Christmas.
Since today is December 3, I had to open three Advent windows. The first depicted a dove. The second window revealed a bell-ringer in the church tower. And the third, this morning's window, offered a picture of an owl.
I was tempted to write about the dove-peace-since the symbol is most obvious. Or I might have ruminated on church bells, the great timekeepers of hourly Christian prayer. But the owl caught my attention. An Advent owl?
The owl is an ancient symbol of wisdom. Many religious people think faith is about answers, but we may be remiss in this assumption. Scripture teaches us that we are to seek wisdom, that holy Sophia, not the certainty of easy answers. Faith is not passing a doctrine test; rather, faith is about the wisdom of God. Wisdom is a kind of knowing that probes the soul; it goes past answers, often raising more questions on our journey toward God than it resolves. The Jewish philosopher, Victor Frankel, referred to wisdom as "knowing penetrated by unknowing." Yes, wisdom is elusive. Yet it is considered the greatest of all treasures, more precious than gold. Over and over, the Word directs us to seek, pursue, and chase wisdom.
According to both ancient Hebrew and Christian traditions, wisdom has an active quality. Indeed, 50 years ago, the great writer Huston Smith pointed out that wisdom is the ethical life of God in the world. It is the living expression of justice, beauty, and love. Wisdom does not allow its children to sit contentedly in prayer closets, congratulating ourselves on how deeply we experience God. No, holy wisdom calls, pushes, directs, and compels every one of us to act on behalf of the great God of the universe and make shalom.
Indeed, the calendar's first three windows-owl, bells, and dove-open up a surprising vision for this Advent. Wisdom comes not through money, politics, or power. Rather, wisdom is a way open to all who long for it, experienced through redemptive time and practicing peace. Wisdom, hallowed time, and shalom-each a holy sign directing us away from fear and pointing our pilgrim way toward the Prince of Peace.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperOne, 2006) and the forthcoming A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (HarperOne, March 2009).