By Cathy Norman Peterson
CHICAGO, IL (December 24, 2013) – A few years ago I participated in a silent three-day retreat in early December. I was discovering new/ancient spiritual practices, and it seemed like a good way to enter into Advent and prepare for Christmas. As an introvert, I eagerly anticipated three days with nothing to do but sit and be still.
The retreat leaders encouraged us not to use the time for reading, and I knew they were right—it would be easy to spend the entire time buried in my books. But I wanted to clear out space for God, so I left them at home.
It didn’t take long for me to get antsy—turned out that being alone with nothing but my thoughts was incredibly hard. So was praying. I really wanted to hear God’s voice. I knew I couldn’t demand an epiphany, but at the very least I thought I’d feel closer to God by the end of the weekend. But God seemed to be on a silent retreat of his own. I returned home empty and emotionally spent.
For several years I purposefully prepared for Christmas in ways similar to how I approached that retreat. I loved the liturgical invitation to prepare for Christ’s coming into our lives, I engaged lots of Advent practices at home, found interesting Advent calendars, and read devotional reflections with the kids. When we decorated the house, we made it into a family event. And I tried to enter the spirit of Advent by carving out space to be still and to wait for God.
But these days life is full of work and kids’ sports practices and choir concerts and homework—who has the time or energy for quiet reflection? At the dinner table I’d rather ask my children about their days than make the effort to read thoughtful Advent reflections aloud together. We didn’t light our Advent wreath once this year. Decorating the tree became a task to hurry through before guests arrived.
But when a friend asked how I was celebrating Advent, I was chagrined. “I’m not,” I wanted to confess. Had I used my busy schedule as an excuse not to risk encountering God’s silence once again?
I tell myself that manufactured moments of stillness aren’t the only way to prepare for Christ’s coming. Daily life can be incarnational too. A couple days ago my son Emmett was feeling sad because his uncle is dying. “I want him to get better. And I don’t want him to die while we’re there,” he said. At first, I was impatient—Dwight has been in hospice for more than a year and his condition is somewhat stable now. Why was Emmett suddenly anxious? And then I wanted to reassure him quickly—partly because the caramels on the stove were going to burn if I didn’t get in there to stir them, but partly because I wanted to smooth away his fears. I almost said things like, “Don’t worry,” or, “He won’t die this Christmas.” I know better than to make such promises, yet I wanted to make them anyway.
And then my instincts to skate past his pain, rather than seek God in it caught me up short. In that moment I noticed Christ in our presence as I was forced to stop and pay attention to my son. Our family, like many many others, is grieving the shortness of life. And even that terrible thing—that Dwight is dying much too young and too soon—gets buried in the flurry of the quotidian. For a moment with Emmett, Christ woke me up, and that moment was holy.
“Fear not,” the angels said every time they announced the good news of Jesus—because the presence of the Almighty God can be frightening and surprising. And so he comes to us in simple things as mundane and sacred as a baby’s birth, in our hurt, our hope, our fear—and our faith.
On my retreat that December, the silence felt more crushing than restorative. There was no poignant moment of enlightenment. I didn’t experience the Incarnation in any tangible way. Yet God was there all along.
As God is present in all of it—our intentional practices to seek him, the chaos of busy life, our fears, our disappointments, our sadness, and our joys and celebrations.
Entering the Christmas season means reveling in those celebrations, in the gift of Christ among us. It’s tempting to set aside all that intentionality, the seeking and waiting for God that brought us to this point. But today I remember that Christ is always coming—to me and to the world around me—even when it’s hard to find him.