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Why Advent Is Ugly (and Therefore Beautiful)

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Flickr: storebukkebruse
Flickr: storebukkebruse

Every time I turn on the TV, I'm reminded of the myth of Christmas perfection. I see a mother with make-up on (seriously?) baking cookies in the kitchen with her well-behaved children. Her home glows. Her tree glows. She glows. I know it's all part of a well-orchestrated fantasy directed by ad executives and retail kings, but still, I can't help but compare. My house is not a bastion of Christmas cheer. I have a Charlie Brown Christmas tree in one corner because my house is too small for a real tree. The only baking that goes on in our kitchen is done by a three-year-old who stands on a chair next to the counter and mixes cocoa, salt and food coloring, a mess I allow because it distracts her from hitting the baby out of jealous aggression. (Really? Do you have to do that again?)

In the season of Advent waiting, I'm waiting for the mess to dissipate. I'm waiting for the dishes to be clean, for my modest house to look elegant, suddenly, and for my daughter to stop hissing at her little sister. By the time 8 p.m. arrives -- the laundry in bed and the kids folded -- I think to myself, "Finally, a moment of rest." But the truth is, I feel dissatisfied with those few hours of fleeting peace. I look back at my day and see Mother Sisyphus rolling her rock up the mountain. Tomorrow, I have to do it all over again, and how can I possibly do it with grace? How can I carry a thankful heart through the chaos, especially during this season of Advent?

Mother Sisyphus Reflects

When I was a child, my parents had a book on their shelf called "Splendor in the Ordinary" by Thomas Howard. I was reminded of it recently when my priest's wife came over to visit. While I breastfed the baby, Christine sat across from me on the living room floor, talking and listening in turn. She listened to my lament -- about feeling lost in the landscape of motherhood -- and said something she's said before: "Dig deep into the mundane."

Before she left, Christine lent me a book called "The Sacrament of The Present Moment" by an 18th century French priest called Jean-Pierre de Caussade. I read the first few pages while sitting at my dining room table that afternoon. Madeline, my 3-year-old, was eating grilled cheese for lunch and out of curiosity asked me to read aloud to her. Mary the mother of Jesus, I read, is a model of gratitude and contentment, a model of openness to the "mean surroundings" of the world and the "lowly stables" of our lives.

I imagine Mary in the barn in Bethlehem, wondering why sheep farmers and corporate kings have come to visit her newborn. I imagine her in the candlelit dark, leaning over the cradle trough and placing her hand on the swaddled chest of her sleeping infant the way I do each night before I go to bed, just to make sure the baby is still breathing. Her life in that moment is profoundly mundane. She sees not angels in the sky but dried dung, dirty sheep, a needy child.

I don't know what it was like to be Mary -- I'm conjecturing -- but I know what it means to be a mother. I understand the imperfection, the routine, the beauty and banality of it. Even now as I write this article, I've been interrupted half a dozen times to breastfeed, manage meltdowns and scrub spilled nail polish off the floor of my dining room. (For the record, it doesn't come off easily.) In the few, halting spaces of my day when I actually have time to ponder, I've begun to wonder if Christmas itself is not a season of departure from these imperfections but rather a celebration of them. It's about splendor in the ordinary, about the messy way in which God enters the world and by extension the messy ways we practice faith in the mundane moments of our lives. The incarnation of God comes to me not in a temple or cathedral, but in the ordinary space of my own home.

Splendor in the Ordinary

On the first Sunday of Advent, I had a chance to practice the "sacrament of the moment." My 5-month-old had been up the night before teething and had gone down again for her morning nap. Madeline was in the kitchen cooking again, this time pouring cocoa, sugar and cornstarch into a large stainless steel bowl. I staggered around the house in a sleep-deprived state, staring at a sink full of dishes and trying to figure out how to get everyone ready for church in time. After she had finished with her cooking project, Madeline called to me.

"Put this in the oven, please," she said. (When she's done with each cooking project, she pretends to bake it.) After I slid her bowl of chocolate mud into the oven, she said to me, "Come watch. Come watch."

"I need to get ready for church, Madeline."

But she was insistent. "Maybe I can sit on your lap," she said. I sighed and sat down on the chair next to the oven. "No, here on the floor." She pointed.

I sat down with her, then, on a floor that hadn't been swept in days or mopped in months. The oven door window was crusted gold and black and virtually impossible to see through. As I pulled Madeline onto my lap, I could hear the baby waking in the next room, crying out. The moment lasted all of 20 seconds.

To be honest, I wasn't entirely present. I didn't attain some meditative state or spiritual epiphany. I saw the imperfections of that space and time -- my wandering mind, the ugly, unclean kitchen -- and yet in that moment, I gave thanks for my children. I gave thanks, too, for the most profound of gifts: Emmanuel. God with us. Here and now. In the moment. In the mess. In the darkness.

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