Advent at the Fisher house includes singing, lighting of candles, opening a door on the Advent calendar, reading the passage from the calendar’s matching booklet, picking the appropriate homemade ornament and hanging it on the Jesse tree, looking up and reading the corresponding passage from scripture, and plucking the chocolate out of your own personal Advent calendar, if you haven’t already eaten them all, if you haven’t already brushed your teeth. Well, brush them again, then.
Fisher family Advent has, in short, transcended tradition and achieved rigmarole status. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m happy to be doing special things that we don’t do at any other time of year. It’s a nice combination of scripture and aesthetics and memorable lessons, perfect for children and adults alike. It wouldn’t really feel like Advent without it.
But it would feel even more like Advent if I didn’t yell at everyone the whole time we were doing it. It would feel more like Advent if I focused less on reading the right Bible verse in the correct tone of voice, and focused more on being open to the word of God. If I lit a flame in the darkness and let that symbol speak to the kids’ hearts’ directly, rather than correcting them for pronouncing “Is-ra-el” wrong, or brooding in my heart that I’ve raised them all wrong, and we need to start doing scripture drills every night, and I need to start being a better mother so I will have better kids who do things better.
If, in short, I prepared a way for the Lord for the sake of the Lord, rather than preparing for the sake of getting preparations done.
Shh, there’s a little baby nearby!
That’s what I’m trying now to keep in mind. This thought, this image of a newborn nearby, helps make my Advent a little more like Advent. It makes everything a little gentler, a little quieter, a little more slow and thoughtful, just as if there were a tiny baby in the next room, someone I don’t want to disturb, someone I don’t want to grieve. Someone whose world I want to make warm and quiet, soft, welcoming, and kind.
I can’t always control what I have to do during the day, but I can control how I do it. For the sake of the baby nearby, I can take a breath and give a mild answer if someone insults me. For the sake of the baby, I can offer help to someone who’s struggling, rather than waiting for them to ask. I can warmly compliment someone for achieving something small. I can hush my tone of voice; I can apologize sincerely when I screw it up. I can try again without flagellating myself for my inevitable sins. I can skip the sarcastic remark; I can forego the conversation that will only lead to irritation. I can think of the baby nearby, think of the kind of world I want him to grow up in, and I can do what I can to make it a little softer.
I can recognize that I have been noisy and quarrelsome, critical and demanding, and I can think of the baby nearby, and I can hush.
This is what works for me, since so much of my life has been dedicated to caring for babies. But what about you? What if you don’t have a baby in your life?
Oh, but you do. You have someone helpless, someone in need, someone who needs patience, someone who is easily frightened or overwhelmed. Someone overlooked. Someone who is just starting out, someone who isn’t getting much done but could still use some praise. Someone whose world would be better if you decided to act out of love.
The “baby” may look like a snotty teenager, an obnoxious co-worker, or a difficult parent. It may look like a pushy stranger on the sidewalk, or a rude cashier. It may look like a priest who’s disappointed you, or an internet troll who really is out to get you. It may look like someone who never thinks of what you need.
Or it may even be yourself. We can be so extremely hard on themselves at this time of year, keeping up a constant interior litany of blame and reproach for not doing it right, telling ourselves terrible things that we’d never dream of saying about anyone else.
This is what people are like: Needy and demanding, fussy and inconveniently fragile. Would we respond any differently if the people we encountered were new babies? Could we be a little more gentle?
What if you remembered that you, yourself, were a little baby once, and even though you can feed and care for yourself now, you still deserve to be treated with gentleness, even if only by yourself?
At all times of the year, but especially at Advent: It’s always about the person closes to us – or, if you like, it’s all about the baby nearby. And this is how we serve the Person who, liturgically speaking, is nearby, about to be born. We tell our kids that Christmas is Baby Jesus’ birthday, and the kind of presents he wants is for us to be good to each other — and yes, to ourselves. Sometimes the best kind of goodness we can offer is just a little gentleness, a soft touch, a decision not to make noise. A little hush, for the sake of the baby. This is a good way to make way for the Lord: With gentleness.
It’s Advent. There’s a baby nearby. Hush, hush.
[This essay has been modified excerpted from an essay first published in The Catholic Weekly in 2016.]