Darkness and snow descend;
The clock on the mantelpiece
Has nothing to recommend,
Nor does the face in the glass
Appear nobler than our own
As darkness and snow descend
On all personality.
W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (excerpt), 1942.
Many of us experience tension and anxiety this time of year. Days grow shorter, nights get colder, and it seems as though our homes get smaller, closer, feeling either cozy and peaceful or claustrophobic. This can be a time to reconnect with our spouse and family without the distractions of summer, but in close quarters we can’t hide from the tensions between us, either. And if friends and family are far away, loneliness can be compounded.
And of course there is pressure around the holidays themselves. Do we have the “right” gifts? Can we afford what we’re expected to spend? Will our family feast be as spectacular as it’s supposed to be? Will our family and friends, also under pressure, behave themselves? Will we feel as happy and fulfilled as the commercials and greeting cards tell us we should?
Voices in the church remind us that Advent brings its own special gifts, and encourages us to opt out of consumerist frenzy and keep Advent as a season of quiet contemplation and anticipation. But even this advice can cause stress; it is not particularly helpful for the church to scold us for “ruining Advent” just because we enjoy feasting and gift-giving, or because we like to put up lights and decorations more than two days before Christmas. In fact, we may find ourselves in the paradoxical state of worrying that we are not relaxed enough.
The fact is, Advent has tension built into it. It is a season that carries within it beginnings and endings: the beginning of the church year, the anticipation of the birth of the Christ child, as well as dire promises of the Day of the Lord, when this world will be both judged and redeemed. Advent is four weeks that stretch from before creation to the end of time, that pull our focus from the local-interest story of an unmarried pregnant small-town girl, to the nationalist dreams of an occupied people, to the cosmic consummation of creation’s relationship with God.
Advent is a time to consider the mystery of the Incarnation: that the same God who created humanity chose to become human, fully human, truly human, while remaining fully and truly God. This is a fundamental contradiction that is at the heart of our faith. It is no wonder that our response to it is a little bit bipolar.
…To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
And perhaps, therefore, it is perfectly appropriate for us to feel pulled between joy and anxiety, between loneliness and claustrophobia, between expectant waiting and instant gratification, between self-emptying and self-indulgence – indeed, to feel pulled between the poles of heaven and earth. We are pulled, not just because of the tension at the center of Advent, but because of the tension at the center of what it means to be human: dust and clay, but just a little lower than the angels.