Taking out the trash mid-holiday party has become an oddly spiritual chore for me. The trash can usually fills up midway through a gathering, and taking it out has become a Christmas Party Examen that helps me be attentive. (You may be familiar with the concept of an Examen through the Daily Examen, a reflective prayer that invites us to contemplate God’s presence in the ordinary and unordinary alike.) This accidentally-but-intentionally discovered Christmas Party Examen gives me a moment outside where I find stillness in the cold air of December evenings in Pennsylvania…Christmas invites me to be attentive. Yet, a general holiday busyness can smother my seasonal hopes for it.
I look into Winter’s expansive sky and notice a moment with nature in its season of darkness. The moonlight helps me see the squirrel’s den between the oak’s bare branches. I hold a memory and ponder my way back to the fall when the squirrel gathered acorns under the tree where it is now wintering. I drop the trash bag into the container, and the laughter of our company, which is evident yet muffled by the walls and windows of the home, draws me back to my dwelling. I open the door to gather again with those present. Gratitude anchors me because while God has given the squirrel a home, the Lord also saw fit for me to have one. I and the squirrel are wintering the best we can, and though the squirrel doesn’t need the assistance of the holidays, they sure help me.
Christmas invites me to be attentive. Yet, a general holiday busyness can smother my seasonal hopes for it. So, ordinary spaces like completing a holiday party chore are the concise and intentional moments I don’t want to miss, even though I can and often do. I remember that a brief step outside helps me to notice, hold, and open.
Each is an act of attention and can be applied to the spiritual life in simple yet profound ways. As your Christmas season takes shape, be intentional about how the season is shaping you. Find slower living amid holiday busyness with these three movements of attentiveness.
On one eve of Advent a couple of years ago, I sat in my favorite living room chair to review the notes of an Advent sermon I had been writing. We had just decked the halls that day, and I scanned the room’s transformation. I noticed that a door in our living room was unobservant of its place among the Christmas decor. Our Christmas tree was just to the right of it, and our simple nativity scene sat on a fireplace mantle just to the left. I expected these festive items to help me be attentive to Advent. But the Holy Spirit kept insisting I see the undecorated door as something. So, I did. As I pondered it, I realized that I had missed something in my Advent studying and Scripture reading: at its roots, Christmas is about expectantly waiting for the door to open.
We don’t only settle in, we wait: to reunite with loved ones in this life or the next, for an end to earthly sorrow, for another chance, for peace in place of chaos, for something to work right, and for rest from weary traveling – literally or from life’s difficult journey, in the short-term or over the long haul.
Advent says, Because of the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.1At its roots, Christmas is about expectantly waiting for the door to open.
Christmas invites us into expectant waiting, even if a door is closed right now.
Notice the symbols in your dwelling place that point you to the Advent truth of expectant waiting. It could be in the Christmas decor or something that was always there. Or maybe it’s outside. It could be a neighbor’s situation revealed through a generous conversation, or some Advent truth might be available through the bird that hangs around through winter.
You can also notice what needs to be lamented. Lament is a form of expectant waiting and is as classic a Christmas tradition as jolly laughter around a fireplace with loved ones. You may notice or recall someone experiencing a first Christmas after losing someone they love. Or you may be aware of a couple who, unlike Mary and Joseph, are not expecting this Christmas but had desperately wanted to be.
As we practice noticing, we will find reason for joy and cause for lament, and Christmas will have it no other way. The first Christmas light, the dawn from on high, was to break upon those sitting in darkness. Christmas came for those dark spots of our lives, neighborhoods, and world. It still does. As much as we can love the lights, the dark December sky reminds us of some deeper side to Advent.
The Gospel writer reminds us that angels visited shepherds and told them about Christ’s birth. Then, the shepherds went to Bethlehem; and, When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.2
In Mary, we see the attentive practice of holding. Earlier on, she held a question: How can this be, since I am a virgin?3 A bit later, six months pregnant with Christ in her womb, she held space for herself off the grid with her relative Elizabeth by traveling to the hill country.4The opposite of pondering is to forget. Remember as a way of holding God's activity near to you.
Mary holds a question in God’s presence, space for herself off the grid to see a relative, and ponders in her heart by holding words to consider their meaning deeply. You may want an answer when instead this Christmas invites holding a question in God’s presence. Access the hill country or locally carve out space to hold for yourself; make time to be with those you need most right now as you hold things in your heart.
Mary pondered the words she received from angels through shepherds to remember God’s activity. The opposite of pondering is to forget. Take a pen to paper and journal about something God did in a previous Christmas season in your life; remember it as a way of holding God’s activity near to you. Ask a question or two in the journal to wonder about God’s activity this Christmas. The past work of God, and pondering it, brings the attentiveness to God’s activity now this Christmas.
Charles Dickens was attentive to his time and place. He read reports about a growing apathy toward poor working conditions in the lower-class labor force, specifically children working in terrible conditions. Dickens wanted to weigh in on these issues, or more accurately sound off about them. He first drafted a pamphlet titled An Appeal To The People Of England On Behalf Of The Poor Man’s Child. Historian John Broich explains:
But in less than a week of thinking about it, he decided instead to embody his arguments in a story with a main character of pitiable depth. So what might have been a polemic to harangue, instead became a story for which audiences hungered…what Dickens did propose in A Christmas Carol, which he scribbled out in less than two months in the fall of 1843—intending it, in his words, as a “sledge hammer” blow—was still radical, in that it rejected the “modern” ideas about work and the economy.5
A Christmas landscape without Tiny Tim, Martha Cratchit, or Ebenezer Scrooge is unimaginable. Yet, those characters and the story they tell almost never saw the light of day. Charles Dickens paid attention to his time and place, and opened his gift in his own way, and in his own context.Use your gift in some way this Christmas, humble and unnoticed as it may be.
As you are attentive to your time and place, be open to using the gift God has given you. After growing some 30 or so years, the Christ child had something to say about using the gifts we have been given.6 Christmas is not the time to hide gifts. We give them. We open them. Open your gift this Christmas. Gifts can take time to understand. If you’re a surgeon, please perfect your gift before using it. Otherwise, get out there, pay attention, and use your gift in some way this Christmas, humble and unnoticed as it may be. Serve, create, listen, connect with people, sing, play, lead, invent, pray, give, preach, put the room at ease with a joke, cook, host, navigate, write, and problem-solve. Come to the traditional manger scene and join the magi: Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.7 You have a gift. How is the Spirit inviting you to open it this Christmas?
Christmas invites us to be attentive: to notice, to hold, and to open.
I will close with a short blessing as you continue through the season:
This Christmas, may God draw you close to noticing what you need to see; may Christ put a star in the sky of your life, something to guide you to what needs held; may the Spirit fill your soul with confidence to open your gift, humble as it may be; and may you find space for attentiveness this Advent.
Merry Christmas to you and yours!
- Luke 1:78-79 (NRSVue)
- Luke 2:17-28 (NRSVue)
- Luke 1:34 (NRSVue)
- Luke 1:39 (NRSVue)
- Broich, John. The Real Reason Charles Dickens Wrote A Christmas Carol. TIME Magazine, December 13, 2016. URL: https://time.com/4597964/history-charles-dickens-christmas-carol/
- Matthew 25:14-30; The Parable of the Talents (NRSVue)
- Matthew 2:11 (NRSVue)