I’ve been thinking about the blessings of this experience a lot over these first few days of Advent, here at the beginning of the church year and the end of a calendar year. Though much of society celebrates the days from Thanksgiving to Christmas as the Christmas season, the tradition of the church is actually slightly different.
The four Sundays before Christmas are known as the four Sundays of Advent. Not simply an elongation of the Christmas holiday, the Season of Advent exists as a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. Its roots are traced to St. Martin’s Lent — a period of fasting to prepare for Christmas that used to begin on St. Martin’s Day (Nov. 11 — so, apparently there is some backing to starting to think about Christmas before Thanksgiving!). Later, the period was shortened to the four Sundays before Christmas and took the name “Advent.” However, in the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites of the Catholic Church, Advent still actually begins on the sixth Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday after St. Martin’s Day.
Various Christian traditions observe Advent differently, but most are united in the idea that it is not just four extra weeks of celebration before Christmas Day. Rather, the season of Advent is a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ, when we seek to “make room” for the Advent of God into our world, into our lives.
One of the essential aspects of our Latino ministry was that our congregation had to learn what it would mean to “make room” in our congregation for new people from a different culture, many of whom spoke a different language. We were clear from the front that we didn’t just want a separate Spanish-speaking congregation. Rather, we wanted our new Latino members to find themselves at the heart — “el corazón” — of our community. That means we had to think differently about Sunday schedules, about how to ensure key moments throughout the church year could be fully celebrated by people of both cultures and languages.
We’ve sought to be intentional about what it means to be invited into something different. So, this Saturday at 6 p.m., we’ll have a Las Posadas party at our church. This Latin-American tradition replicates the journey of the Holy Family, seeking to find room at the inn but being turned away. It includes the singing of special carols, especially “Peregrinos” or “wanderers” — a back and forth between host and guest, with the hosts playing the role of innkeeper and the guests the role of the Holy Family — before a celebratory meal.
Next Wednesday at 7 p.m., we will have a Solemn Procession and Eucharist in honor of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe — a vision of Mary that appeared to a poor native Mexican and which was first ignored by the church hierarchy, until Mary filled the poor man’s cloak with roses in December and left an imprint of her image upon the cloak itself.
And, on Christmas Eve, in addition to our Family Eucharist at 5 p.m. and our Solemn Eucharist with incense at 10:30 p.m., we will have a Spanish-language Eucharist at 2 p.m.
A lot of this has been new to our members. (It has been new to me, as well!) But we have sought to be curious and not afraid to hear how others may experience God differently than us. We’ve been blessed as we have made room for one another and the faith of everyone — Anglo and Latino alike — has been tremendously deepened.
I truly think this is what Advent is all about, after all — making room. When Christ was about to come among us in the baby in Bethlehem, no one wanted to make room for a traveling family and an unwed mother. That’s why they sent them to the stables, where a pregnant teenager cried and screamed as she gave birth on dirty hay surrounded by animals. But God came nonetheless, even though no one really wanted to make room.
There are all kinds of places in each of our lives where we probably don’t want to make room, where we prefer comfort and consistency. December tends to fill rapidly with parties and shopping until the days after Christmas Day finally seem like a welcome break. But I’d invite you to ask if there are some ways you can stretch in these next weeks. Are there some places in your life where you can open your perspective, open your life, so that God may show up in ways you might not expect?
Partisan division is at near record levels. Crowds of people fleeing poverty and violence are at the very gates of our nation. Here in the sleepy Tri-Cities, many continue to struggle with anxiety and depression. Suicides always peak this time of year. There are still not enough affordable places to live in our community. LGBTQ persons often find themselves needing to hide their identity if they want to show up at church on Christmas, much less at the family table with a partner.
None of this is OK. We shouldn’t paper it over with tinsel and bows.
God will come among us, nonetheless. But if history is any indicator, it will be easy to miss God’s coming if we don’t prepare first.
So, see if you can make a little more room — in your life, in your family, in your church, in your community and in our country. See if you can make a little more room for what the love of God is trying to do. I guarantee you will not regret it.
The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven.