This time of year is steeped in traditions.
Each day in December, we’re surrounded by traditions and the nostalgia that comes with them: the perennial holiday specials on TV, the annual parades and neighborhood festivals, the office parties, the recipes, the shopping trips with family and friends. The hope for many of us as we participate in these busy winter schedules is that these rituals help keep the “magic of Christmas” alive. We all know the particular sadness that occurs when we miss out on a beloved tradition: “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas without . . . (fill in the blank).”
As a theatre artist, I believe in the practice of repetition. As an actor in rehearsals, you run the same scene over and over again with your company. The end goal is not to become robotically consistent in executing your lines; the goal, actually, is that when you finally get in front of an audience, you’ll be able to play the scene like it’s the first time your character has said these words and experienced this story. Through repetition, the muscle memory in your body has become so accustomed to saying these words and moving through the scene that the emotional part of your brain is free to focus on the emotional journey of your character. Of course, no actor is perfect and sometimes it can be easy – in the middle of a busy performance schedule – to let your muscle memory take over on stage and put your brain on auto pilot.
As 21st-century Christians, don’t we walk the same tightrope during the holiday season? Our traditions serve as ways of processing and sharing the joy of the Nativity story and yet, too often, it feels like we’ve made Christmas into a checklist and we’re just going through the motions. How many of us, as we take the tree down at the end of the season, feel tired or disappointed, instead of feeling the peace promised to us through the birth of Jesus on that celebrated silent night?
We are now in the first week of Advent, the season of the church calendar which leads us to the celebration of Christmas. The word Advent means “coming”, and the season allows us an opportunity to spiritually prepare for and anticipate Christmas. This year at Mercy Commons, just as we did for the Lenten season this spring, we are pulling together a series of Advent Devotional Podcasts, which will be released each Wednesday and Friday between now and Christmas.
Each episode is read by a different member of our congregation and features a meditation on the practice of actively waiting for Christ’s arrival – and all the peace, doubt, fear, stress, and comfort that comes with this particular promise. My hope is that these podcasts, each less than 10 minutes, can be easily incorporated into your busy December schedules as a way to engage with the Mercy Commons family and the story of God connecting to His people in Scripture.
My siblings and I are all grown now, and last month at the Thanksgiving table, my mother was expressing her sadness that she’s never able to surprise us with Christmas gifts anymore. She misses seeing us around the tree as children, shaking boxes, delirious with anticipation and expectation. Recently, my younger sister, Rachel, helped my mom pick out a couple of her own gifts. When Mom frowned at the thought of wrapping a gift that would never surprise, my sister shrugged and promised, “I’ll act surprised.”
As Christians, we know the Christmas story by heart. And yet, like my mother, I hope we all feel moments of newly discovering the ultimate surprise: the incarnation of God in the baby of Jesus. The season of Advent, and the tradition of the Advent devotion, can help us in connecting deeper to prayer and the promises of Scripture during the frantic schedule of December’s days.
Peace and joy to you as we make our way toward the manger!