Mary Anglberger was my favorite babysitter. She kept me while my mother worked weekends as a Duke University Hospital psychiatric nurse. I must have been in third grade when Mary gifted me with the glory that is the chocolate Advent calendar.
Amid numbered paper doors, Santa, Frosty, and Baby Jesus, the calendar taught me that Christmas was more than just one day.
As I inched slowly toward the babe born in a manger, a new piece of milk chocolate was revealed. But the 24 hours between my morning sugar rushes were nearly unbearable. Wasn’t it 7:00 a.m. yet, and time for another yummy piece?
Mary was adamant: this calendar required patience. She taught me Advent lessons before I even knew what Advent was. Later, my Binkley Baptist Church Sunday School classes informed me that Advent is a church liturgical season consisting of the four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve and Day. These weeks, each with themes of hope, love, joy, and peace are supposed to be bursting with anticipation.
This was the reason our sanctuary’s crèche (manger scene) had to be filled little by little each week—and not all at once. The same went for the memorizing the lines to the annual Luke Chapter 2 Nativity Re-enactment. Amid chocolate and golden-tinsel-garland-halos—everything about Advent required patience.
But waiting is hard for kids—and adults.
That’s why Dr. Kate C. Bowler calls Advent a season of “sugar and torture.” Rev. Rosalind C. Hughes names it aptly: “mangled time.” We have to fight not to rush through; we have to be diligent in our approach; Advent requires our presence—not presents.
2017 marks my first Advent since my mother died.
I’d love to plow through this month—pushing through the pain of my first Christmas without Mom. Author Rev. Elizabeth Hagan describes it best: “While songs of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” and “joy the world, the Lord has come!” are blasted on the radio, the grieving among us experience December more like Holy Week than Advent.”
Is January 1st here yet?
But Mary’s and my Sunday School teachers’ lessons remain: Advent is a season of waiting, much like grief requires patience. How will I muddle through?
Sharon Seyfarth Garner, author of Mandalas, Candles, and Prayers: A Simply Centered Advent, has just published a tool that is helping me cope and slow down this holiday season.
Sharon’s book is centered on four prayer modalities coinciding with the four weeks of Advent: Ignatian Examen, Intercessory Prayer, lectio divina, and Centering Prayer. As I color her mandalas—ancient circular designs that invite practitioners into an internal journey—I use the various types of prayer.
This first week of Advent is focused on hope and using the Ignatian Examen prayer practice. While I complete my contemplative coloring, I’m reflecting on:
- Emmanuel—God with Us. I name this truth: God’s presence is with always with me—even in grief.
- Gratitude. Offering thanks for the moments I feel God’s presence. God is connected to me when I shed my armor and become vulnerable and real about grief—acknowledging this deep loss and how it affects me.
- Growth. When do I feel least connected with God? I give awareness and attention to wanting to get better about not rushing through Advent, disconnecting from my feelings about Mom’s death.
- Hope. I look toward tomorrow, next week, and next year, and I imagine the broken piece of me filling with God’s light.
Much like Mary’s chocolate Advent calendar, I find myself anticipating reading more of Sharon’s book, as well as the next day’s coloring session. Coloring is less calories, and just as delicious, because I’m savoring the time—just as I’d savor the Santa-shaped chocolate as it melted in my mouth.
Sharon’s mandalas are helping me take Advent slowly, just as I was taught. After all, the Christmas season is about patience and waiting—but also hope, love, joy, and peace—even amid darkness.