Advent readings save us from twisted Christmas

  • November 23, 2007

TORONTO - When Kathleen Norris pulled back the curtain on what Benedictine life is really about in her ground-breaking 1997 book Cloister Walk, she wanted readers to know it’s not easy being spiritual. She wrote about loneliness and heartbreak and not knowing and just what it might feel like to haul one’s body off to chapel five times a day, every day, for the rest of your life.

On the subject of Advent, North Dakota’s most famous poet and writer on spiritual life has a very similar message: It ain’t easy being Christian just before Christmas these days.

“Christmas has become such a monster,” Norris told The Catholic Register just before addressing a packed theatre in Toronto Nov. 13. “There’s this pressure to spend money we don’t have so that people will love us. It’s just so twisted.”

Norris is one of a bevy of eminent writers who have collectively cast a literate, sophisticated and believing eye on the incarnation in a new book called God With Us. The 164 elegant pages of this devotional art book combine some great images from the history of Christian art with some very sharp minds carving into our culture. It’s likely the only book that could squeeze the liberal, Episcopalian poet Norris between the same covers as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the conservative firebrand founding editor of First Things.

Norris embraced God With Us, contributing commentary on readings for the last week of Advent, because she believes it’s critical that we rediscover what lies beneath the clutter, noise and sentimentality of “the holiday season.”

“The culture itself doesn’t want us to wait, doesn’t want us to contemplate,” she said.

As a Christian and as a poet, Norris feels the loss of our ability to consider, to ponder and to remember. She characterizes our cultural mood as acedia, literally the absence of caring. Acedia is one of those forgotten words of classical theology. It refers to the spiritual aspect of sloth. A flippant slogan of recent years — “Life’s a bitch, and then you die” — is the perfect expression of acedia, said Norris.

Norris will not accept acedia. It is not inevitable, or necessary, or a fact of modern life. She rails against it, and Advent is her platform. The daily readings and prayers of Advent are the engine of religious remembering, waiting and hoping. Read them, pray them and feel what Advent does to the soul in preparation for Christmas.

Including Advent, it takes 36 days for Christians to celebrate Christmas, in a gradual process of burrowing down into the reality of the incarnation. And it’s not a sentimental reality of puffy white angels, rosy cheeked babies planted among cute farm animals, points out Norris. God’s incarnation in human flesh is deeply connected to Christ’s crucifixion at our own hands. The day after Christmas we celebrate the first martyr, St. Stephen, then two days later the slaughter of the Holy Innocents — a crime that looks so much like the images we see from Darfur, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Burma, Afghanistan.

Advent is meant to bring us heart-to-heart and face-to-face with who God is, and in the Feasts of Light which follow Christmas — Epiphany, the Presentation of Our Lord and the Baptism of the Lord — it’s gratifying to run into this spiritual reality. But it’s the nature of the incarnation, said Norris, that we must also see in Christ’s birth who we really are. God is incarnate as one of us, and before we can be ready to see that on Christmas morn, we have to spend Advent seeing who we have become.

“We have to see not only what God is like, but who God wants us to be,” said Norris.

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