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Caught in the Beauty: On Keeping Advent

A few weekends ago, on a bitter forty-degree night (oh you who laugh, you too might shiver if you lived in the South where no buildings hold heat and no people own coats!), a hundred or so people braced against the chill to take in the wonder being enacted on the outdoor stage: a one-man performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, delivered with subtlety and zest by a skilled local actor, who seemed to have memorized every page of the novella, word-perfect.

Last Sunday, in a little yellow classroom, a dozen kindergarten-through-first-graders shoved and scrambled around a table to color in a poster drawn up by my talented artist-teacher-sister. Each Advent week they have added to the wall a banner displaying a name of Christ from “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” For this week’s “King of Nations” poster, they painstakingly scraped their crayons in the color-coded shapes that would end with a golden crown set in stained glass. They worked with all the clumsy enthusiasm and lively chatter you’d expect; but when we finally lifted the paper from the table, that all melted into a deep-breathed “Ohhh!” They could hardly believe what their own hands had made.

Today, running Christmas errands with my other sister, our conversation turned towards the labor that has kept her hands in perpetual motion for the past six months: crocheting doilies, some of which she’s been wrapping up as Christmas gifts. They’re intricate old-fashioned affairs, froths of lace cresting in dainty pineapples and picots—a lost art, surely. But “I make them for Beauty,” she said.

Scenes like these speed past us in the hurried days of Advent—days in which we long for a lingering, contemplative waiting, but that tend to rush with the brevity of winter sunlight. Perhaps there is a truth in this instead of a failure; perhaps the hasting of the season teaches our souls that waiting can be an active thing, that expectancy and longing can—must—be nurtured in a heart that still bears the weight of each day’s labors and worries. The master is coming at an hour no man knows, and blessed is that servant whom his lord, when he cometh, finds so doing.

Yet amidst this flurry come moments of such beauty: words breathed to life on a stage, crayons scratching out stained glass, thread twisted into lace. Beauty can be rushed past unnoticed; it can be turned away from the inn. But for those who see and welcome it, beauty creates its own stillness, runs an eddy in time’s current. Caught in its circle, image of eternity, we may stay a moment while the waters rush on.

And in this Advent season, might not those moments of beauty be the voice crying in a wilderness of bustle and haste and distraction, calling us to prepare a way in our hearts for the Lord whom we celebrate? Was not the Incarnation itself the grandest inbreak of beauty—the moment when, as one songwriter said, “eternity stepped into time,” creating Word into baby’s cry, almighty Lord into a manger, God into man?

As December hurtles towards Christmas, perhaps the solution is not merely to “simplify,” but somehow to rest in the speeding current with an eye to the eddies of beauty; like Mary, to treasure these up in our hearts; like the Wise Men, to give beauty back, as lavishly as we can, for the sake of the Beauty come into our midst.

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