Advent 2023

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As soon as we arrived in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the early 60s, my parents went “church shopping,” visiting Methodist churches one after another. Things went awry every time. One church didn’t have a Sunday School. The minister at another told newcomers to stand up and he commented on one woman’s ‘lovely hat.’ The final straw was the church that gave out Green Stamps to those attending. (Who remembers Green Stamps?) My parents, though both had deep ties to the Methodist Church, became Episcopalian.

We joined a little church a few blocks from our home, a renovated house in an orange grove right on the bay. The liturgy was what I would later learn was “high church,” very ceremonial, graceful, and filled with ritual. I loved it. I loved the little book everyone held. I loved the genuflecting and making the sign of the cross. I loved the way things changed as we moved through the year. I loved the way on one Sunday in late November or early December, a day not locked onto the calendar, we entered a season called “Advent.”

Advent, a time of waiting and preparation. We were already doing that, I realized. We were already buying presents and strings of lights. We were already making cookies and adding to the paper stars. Now, though, I had a context in which to see these actions as precious and sacred. I loved the ceremony, the lighting of the next candle of the wreath every week, the way three candles were purple because we were supposed to be penitential, and one was pink. It’s impossible to fully embrace the penitential as the world sparkles with little lights set against the dark, so the third week we were allowed to lighten up liturgically, to hearten us for the last week before Christmas. That last week, filled with parties and wrapping paper and lines at the post office.

Underneath it all, the earth turns, the days grow darker, the rain falls and turns to snow. For all our technology and rationality, we are still primal people, wary, wondering on some subliminal level if the sun really will return.

“Are you ready for Christmas?” It’s a way of making small talk. How could I be ‘ready,’ whatever that means, in the first week of December? It’s not just small talk, though. “There is a new sickness going around. Bombs fall. Democracy hangs by a thread. The days grow darker. Are you ready?”

Advent. A season of weeks in which to practice holding opposite thoughts in balance, having “two thinks at a time,” as James Joyce described it. The world is a mess and in a much more immediate and tangible way than the proverbial “going to hell in a handbasket,” although also that. Sowers of chaos sense opportunity. Sowers of fear find easy prey.

Months have passed; years have passed. Whatever ground gained has slipped away. New obstacles arise, and faintness of heart, and dread. – Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole”

I try to choose that time of the afternoon, earlier and earlier now, when the light of day is dissolving into the dark of night, to take the dog for her walk. It is easier to listen then, to see. The pattern of tree shapes against the misty sky stuns me awake. I feel my feet against the earth. I watch a flitting chickadee. I hear the distant call of crows. The dog comes alert. I try to hear or see what has called to her. I don’t, but I trust her. I believe my unseen is, nevertheless, present.

The Collect for Advent I, before it gives way to what I call “filler phrases,” invites us to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” I take this to mean I am not to drown in despair or allow my own helplessness to paralyze me. At the same time, I am offered protection, the armor of hope, a way forward. If I must wake in the night let it be to watch, not in panic, but in expectation.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth
across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.


The liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent. Not Christmas, not New Year’s, but the quiet first Sunday of Advent, with the lighting of the first candle. Advent 2023, coming after so many long years of upheaval and within the promise of more, does feel different, but perhaps it isn’t. I am being told simply to keep moving, keep walking the dog, keep watch.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” a haunting instrumental of an ancient Advent hymn.

5 Responses

  1. I found your website, Susan. Just read this – I was Methodist at one time, too. Grace in Carlisle- you probably Allison. Now combined, I believe. But I enjoyed your reflection on discovery of “high church.” And your talk of Advent. Candles too. In my family we celebrate Chanukah as well – light welcomed this darker month! Your writing is lovely and I will share about your book reflecting on Viet Nam!

  2. I love this, Susan. As a long-time Methodist, I offer apologies on behalf of my denomination for the failures of those Florida churches in your childhood! I, too, enjoy the progression through the church seasons. Last Sunday, our service was essentially a hymn sing, honoring each liturgical season with an appropriate song. Today we lit the candle of Hope on the large Advent wreath near the altar. And truly we need Hope in our world right now. Thank you for adding your always insightful perspective to my Advent reading. Best wishes to you for peace, joy and love as well as hope this Christmas season❤️

    1. How beautiful, Barb! Your church would have passed muster, I am quite sure! Best to you in this season of watching.

  3. “Casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light” has never sounded more appropriate or important. Thank you!

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