Many of us at this time of year will have an Advent calendar. Its twenty-four windows mark the countdown to Christmas, and we’re supposed to open one window each day, to build a sense of expectation as Christmas Eve draws nearer. If you have young children or grandchildren, you might find it hard to stop them sneaking a look at the days ahead.
Hopefully, your Advent calendar will be one that actually relates to the Christmas story, not one which features Harry Potter, or Santa Claus with assorted elves. And if your calendar is one that rewards the opening of each window with a small piece of chocolate, try and ensure it’s a Fair Trade one (I get no commission for this, but what could be more appropriate than for your Advent calendar to be ‘Divine’?).
The practice of a daily Advent rhythm –opening one window at a time – is a good spiritual discipline. It gives us a regularity which can so easily be lost amidst all the hustle and bustle of life. It teaches us something of the importance of patient waiting – one of the key themes of Advent. For God is in no hurry, and will not let himself be bound by our arbitrary timescales. When the time was right he sent his Son into the world: when he judged the time to be right, not when it might have been more convenient for us. In Advent we remember we are on God’s time – an especially hard but essential lesson when most of us are dashing round like mad things in an effort to prepare for the ‘great day’.
So we are to wait and watch. But each newly-opened window is not simply a way of marking the passing of the days. One day you may find a candle, or a shepherd, a donkey or a star.
And each new window gives us a chance to pause for thought; to reflect on the significance of that particular window in the whole Christmas story. Each window gives us a subject for a few minutes’ meditation, helps us to stop what we are doing and just ponder what it’s all for, where it’s all leading.
It is a kind of daily practice of the presence of God, and a way of nurturing our sense of wonder as we approach that most mysterious and startling of God’s gifts to us – his very self in human form. One of the greatest examples of our modern poverty is the way we allow our imagination – and therefore our sense of wonder – to become dried up and deadened. Imagination is one of the most important ways of learning how to respond to God and to what he is doing in our own lives and in the world around us. Those of us who are essentially ‘nuts and bolts’ people are particularly in need of rediscovering our faculty for imagination if we are to make progress in the spiritual life.
An Advent calendar can also teach us vital lessons for our life the whole year round, not just in Advent. It is a microcosm of our need to see every new day as a gift from God, full of surprising possibilities, filled with his near presence. It is an invitation to cultivate that sense of his presence in everything around us – those we meet (and not least those who seem the most unlikely of bearers of the divine presence) and all that we see. It takes imagination to see beyond the surface, to see with a new light, with eyes that unveil a little of the reality that God sees, but which our own deadness of vision obscures and hides. It also takes faith that, in the midst of the unpredictability of opening each new window and what it might show for our own lives, the same God is nevertheless at work.
An Advent calendar gives us windows of wonder – for a season, yes, but not just for a few weeks only. There’s a lifetime of wonder ahead.