One thing I miss about being a devout Christian is the deeper meaning my faith gave to the Christmas season. Granted, there are a lot of people who enjoy Christmas without any personal connection to Christianity, and I do still take joy in many of the delights of this time of year--the lights, the aromas, the colors, the general friendliness that seems heightened (perhaps because of the lights and aromas and colors). But when you go from sincerely believing that Baby Jesus was and is the one true hope for the salvation of this suffering world to not even believing in the existence of a god, the holiday that celebrates the birth of the Christ child does tend to lose some of its lustre.
In particular, I miss celebrating the Advent season. This is not actually a tradition I grew up with, aside from having advent calendars that basically just meant daily doses of cheap chocolate for the span of an entire month. Rather, it was introduced to me in its true, decidedly non-chocolate form around the time I was in seminary, when I started going to an Episcopalian church. Advent, I came to understand, is about waiting; more precisely, it’s about waiting in the darkness. It is a period of time that begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and lasts until Christmas Day. Each Sunday of Advent involves the lighting of a candle, and each candle is incorporated into an Advent wreath. The candles usually symbolize some combination of hope, love, joy, and peace. In addition, there is a fifth “Christ candle”, lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, that symbolizes Jesus being the light of the world. The candles are lit--and Advent is observed--with the understanding that believers rejoice in the expected coming of their Lord while also living in the “not yet” of an imperfect and heartbreaking world.
I think it was this “not yet” with which I most resonated. In the same way that I have always answered ‘Yes’ to the oft-used personality test question, “Do you feel a connection to broken or damaged things,” the Christianity I experienced always felt especially comfortable to me in large part because a deep and perpetual sense of sad incompleteness was central to the church’s story. There was a way in which you were supposed to feel as deeply as possible the suffering of the world--to know it--so that, I suppose, you could know how much the world needs God. And, it turns out, I am a person who feels sadness a lot. I feel peaceful frequently, too, but I notice in myself a kind of perpetual sorrow that is rarely totally gone, like a low note playing through the background of my life’s long film. For better or worse, I am constantly aware, on some level, of the darkness of existence. I also constantly want to illuminate that darkness, which is probably why Advent and Christmas have meant so much to me over the years. Advent is about dwelling in the awareness of one’s (or the world’s) pain and dissatisfactory-ness. When so much of Christianity seems to call for happiness and joy in the wake of God’s goodness and mercy, Advent recognizes the long, dry stretches of time in which there is no hope. There is hope for hope, maybe, but sometimes that’s as close as a person can get. Advent allows the believer to cry out--often literally, with songs like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”--for help, which is something that part of me wants to do on a daily basis.
But whom would I, or could I, be crying out to, as a non-believer? The problem with leaving Christianity behind is that one also leaves behind the Big Man Upstairs who’s supposed to get all the shit done. Yes, there is space for mourning the state of the world even as an apostate, but one must either take responsibility for what is within one’s control to fix, or simply let it go (probably a little bit of both is a good idea, really). I think is why Christmas is not quite as special to me now as it once was. I am not celebrating the coming of my literal savior, the one who'll rescue us all. Wouldn't it be nice? No, the solutions to the world's problems are just as evasive on December 25th as they were the day before. I am merely, or so it feels, enjoying the aesthetics. So, now comes the process of being okay with that, of deciding what’s enough to get me by when it comes to making meaning.
Maybe that’s what we’re all doing: gauging how much meaning we need at any given moment, or, conversely, how much meaning we can handle. I used to cling to ideas about the meaning of life, and I still do search for it more than is called for at times, which is certainly one reason I went all-in with the church thing. But I burned out on worrying about the (perceived) fact that there was a certain way things were supposed to be and things were not complying with that way. Now, I find comfort in insignificance. Show me a picture of our galaxy so I can remember that I’m nothing, and I’m a happy girl. It’s such a relief sometimes, knowing how little we all matter. In contrast, Christmas, in the religious sense, is all about humans on Earth being the center of everything: “God became flesh and dwelt among us.” Given that, I wonder if it's another thing I have to release as a relic of what is now a past life. What use does the holiday have for me these days, beyond being pretty? How does one reappropriate what one has already explored and chosen to abandon? Maybe these questions are my Advent candles now.