"Advent is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ," wrote Trappist monk Thomas Merton. It is the time Christians set aside for spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ celebrated at Christmas. Even as Christmas has become more secular, the Advent season still brings joy and the observance of ancient customs. Christian families find quiet moments lighting candles in the Advent wreath; children use Advent calendars to count the days until Christmas arrives.
Advent is also a pilgrimage. A time of sacred travel. It is a way that we answer what Goethe called "the holy longing." During Advent we will leave the place of our birth to journey to the birthplace of another. It is an invitation to be born again.
"There is great virtue in practicing patience in small things," wrote the 20th- century English mystic and artist Caryll Houselander, "until the habit of Advent returns to us." The disciplines of Advent are ones that teach us to do small things greatly, to do few things but do them well, to love in particular, rather than in general. This habit of small "successes" generates creativity, a sense of well-being, a generosity of spirit rooted in satisfaction. It generates hope.
Christians engaged in social transformation often get discouraged. We are acutely aware of the evils of the world. At times we despair or allow our anger at injustice to be the source of energy in our lives. Sometimes we actually create despair and depression in our lives when we only fight losing battles. It is mandatory that we yoke ourselves to disciplines that generate hope.
Walking on the streets of a Las Vegas suburb while visiting the Las Vegas Catholic Worker, I met an 8-year-old boy out riding his bike. The bike was a clunker and the boy was wearing hand-me-downs. I asked him, "How’s it going?" "Great!" he replied. "I’m in my ninth week of having fun!" I laughed and laughed—then took out my date book to mark out my own nine weeks of fun.
Having fun is not the same as having hope, but they are related. Dipping in the deep refreshing pool of joy and contentment is one reminder that the world and everything in it, good and bad, belongs to God. It is our work to live in "day-tight compartments," as William Osler put it—receiving our daily bread, doing good, offering hospitality, choosing compassion and forgiveness, serving the "least of these," singing, praying, and, when night comes, giving our bodies and souls over to sleep.
We light the Advent candles to remind us that things are not always as they seem, and that hope springs forward at the sound of its name. What habits do you have that generate hope?
IN WILLIAM BLAKE’S poem "Jerusalem," he wrote: "I give you the end of a gold string./Only wind it into a ball,/It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate/built in Jerusalem’s wall."
The followers of The Way in the first century wove together a "gold string" that reached back to the creation of light in the Genesis story and forward to this very Advent. There is a golden thread that sews us together as students of Jesus. Paul calls this thread the "grace of apostleship." It is passed, hand to hand, from one generation to the next. Like kindergartners on a field trip through the big world, we are given a rope and told to hold on. We know that the rope reaches all the way back to the teacher, the anchor, the shepherd.
Advent is a time to marvel at the golden thread and to make sure that we have not become separated from it. If, by chance, you have become separated from it, do not be afraid. Jesus extends the end of the string to you again. What glistens in your life? What sweetens your days? Your answer is the beginning of the thread. "Only wind it into a ball," my friend, and "it will lead you in at Heaven’s gate."
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet. Portions of this column appeared in Syllables of the Perfect Word, published by Pax Christi USA (2004).