My favorite Advent carol comes from West Side Story:
Could be!Normally I would apologize for quoting the whole thing, but it's just so damned good I couldn't resist. Stephen Sondheim knew his way around the English language, and Leonard Bernstein set it to music that captures perfectly the sense of anticipation, of hopeful expectancy, for something both wonderful and enigmatic.
There's something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
It may come cannonballing down through the sky,
Gleam in its eye,
Bright as a rose!
It's only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
Under a tree.
I got a feeling there's a miracle due,
Gonna come true,
Coming to me!
Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something's coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something's coming, I don't know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!
With a click, with a shock,
Phone'll jingle, door'll knock,
Open the latch!
Something's coming, don't know when, but it's soon;
Catch the moon,
Around the corner,
Or whistling down the river,
Come on, deliver
Will it be? Yes, it will.
Maybe just by holding still,
It'll be there!
Come on, something, come on in, don't be shy,
Meet a guy,
Pull up a chair!
The air is humming,
And something great is coming!
It's only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
Maybe tonight . . .
That's what Advent is supposed to be about. This comes as a surprise to most people, whether or not they attend church regularly. From Thanksgiving on, we in the Western world are bombarded with a steady stream of Christmas music, both sacred and profane, so it's no wonder most people think "Advent" is about preparing for Christmas: buying and wrapping gifts, decorating a tree, baking cookies and fruit cakes, wearing green and red outfits and, for the more religiously inclined, setting up a nativity scene complete with animals, shepherds, wise men, and the holy family. Tell them none of that has anything to do with Advent and they may say something like, "But I've got an Advent calendar that's a countdown to Christmas!"
If you live anywhere but a monastery or convent, you can be excused for thinking Advent is all about Christmas preparation. Our whole economy is geared to hammer home that idea. The aisles at Fred Meyer are teeming with displays for stocking stuffers; the Salvation Army ringers are at every door; the produce section invites shoppers to put together a Christmas basket; the clothing department has racks of sweaters, hats, ties, pajamas, and underwear with Christmas themes. It's inescapable. With the whole world telling us to get ready for Christmas, how can we be expected to see this season any other way?
And yet, to me, the beauty of Advent, the genius of it, and what makes it, out of everything the church has handed down over the centuries, my favorite season, is its ambiguity. Advent texts, while familiar to anyone who's heard Handel's Messiah, are stubbornly vague in the hope they proclaim: it involves peace and justice, but that's as specific as it gets. This is the season of eschatological awareness, of knowing that everything can change in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. Often that change is something to be dreaded: without warning, a loved one dies, a marriage ends, a child runs away, a house burns down, a factory closes. Yes, any crisis is also an opportunity, but the path to the new age yet to come passes through the river of suffering. On the other hand, the change to come may be a thing of joy: a new job, a new love, a new baby; and yet any of these changes has a ripple effect that is not always pleasing. The new love in one's life comes at the cost of alone time, of friend time, and brings with it the uncertainty of how long this new relationship will last, and where it will go. The new baby means losing sleep, losing social time with peers, worries about the baby's health, about providing for a growing family, about the toll it takes on the parents' relationship with each other. And the new job...
I have a new job. I've written a great deal about it: I'm a full-time teacher working in my specialty, elementary music, for the first time in four years. There's a lot to love about this work, which is both rewarding and challenging. There's also a great deal to grieve: saying goodbye to students in Banks, some of whom I had known since 2007; giving up the every-other day schedule that kept Amy and me in frequent contact; a longer commute that expands most of my work days to nine and a half hours; loss of fitness due to those longer hours and the fatigue I feel at the end of the day. And professionally, while full-time work has many financial advantages, changing districts means I am back to being a probationary teacher (at 52!) for the next three years, while working with such a needy student population and teaching in a gym means I've got to be constantly improving my game if I'm to manage these classes. There's a lot at stake here, and I've got to prove myself in ways I haven't had to in a very long time.
I didn't see any of that coming. The suspense of the two weeks before I was established at Margaret Scott School--from the first interview call from the principal to the final invitation to come aboard--was a time of hopeful anxiety, feeling like my world could be turning upside down any moment, that I could be embarking on a new adventure, but unsure whether it would even happen, then caught up in the mess of transition so late in the employment cycle that I actually had to start school in Banks. All told, the stress I felt about making that change was greater than I've known with any other employment situation.
This new world I'm living in has transformed my life in more ways than I can count. Everything's been turned on its head. Every day is a new adventure, and however much I plan, I can never be certain where it will take me.
I didn't see any of this coming. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trade it for anything. But the surprise factor in this new job is beyond belief.
And that, my friends, is what Advent is supposed to be like: something's coming, something wonderful, but with the potential for being tragic, as well. When Tony sings his song, it's all about hope in the midst of uncertainty. We who hear this song know how the story will end: even if we're coming to West Side Story without somehow knowing the plot line, even if we've never read Romeo and Juliet, from the moment the Jets and the Sharks explode onto the stage, we know someone's going to wind up dead. Tony smells love in the air. It will kill him. It doesn't have to, but that's what's coming.
That's very different from looking forward to a baby in a manger, even if we're aware of the tragedy nested in that story. It's worlds apart from looking forward to a fat man in a red suit coming down the chimney with a sack full of toys.
Advent is about the future locked in every moment of the present. That's what I value about it: my now, however ultimate it may feel, never has the final world. Tomorrow may bring the phone call, the email, the knock on the door you've been waiting for--or that you've been dreading. Or it may bring something you couldn't begin to predict. All we know for certain is that tomorrow is a new day.