Whatever happened to Advent? It’s still a fixture in the Catholic Church, and has been so ever since the tenth century, but now it’s gradually being overshadowed by a commercially-led, month-long celebration of Christmas.
Australia should be a wonderful place to celebrate Advent. While the northern hemisphere shivers and sits in the dark, jacarandas splash their seasonal bluey-purple flowers across our suburbs and we rejoice in the light, long days of it. There’s the palpable sense of endings, soon to be followed by the possibilities in new beginnings.
Then there’s the shopping malls. Usually I like the buzz of a shopping mall, but I get no satisfaction from this Santa Claus approach to the celebration of the birth of the Christ – seasonally linked songs on repeat play, holly wreaths, red bows and sparkly stars, pine trees sprinkled with un-Australian fake snow, and gift suggestions every which way you look.
A one-size-fits-all liturgy is part of my catholic inheritance, but the Advent focus on the clarion call words of John the Baptiser has little in common with either my life or December in today’s Australia. While the Church’s liturgical offerings for the four weeks of Advent make sense in my head, I struggle to find their relevance in the pre-Christmas bustle and anticipation that surrounds me.
For centuries the voice of Advent has been the camel-skin clad John the Baptiser, preaching his fiery message of repentance to a people waiting for the coming of the Lord. This John had a famous mother. Her name was Eli-sheba, but we know her as Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah, a woman mostly sidelined to the incident we know as the Visitation. I think I’d rather she was the voice of Advent.
Elizabeth and her kinswoman Mary were two women in crisis, one young, unmarried and pregnant, the other much older and expecting a never-to be-expected first child. Mary did not go to Joseph for understanding, or to her father for protection. Neither did she go to the temple priests for vindication. Confused and needing support, she did what women across the ages have done – she sought the company of another woman, one she could trust, a woman who herself was also in an extraordinary situation.
All her married life Elizabeth had longed for a child. Like Abraham’s wife, Sarah, she had to suffer the whispered comments and snide judgments from family and friends who inferred that infertility inferred God’s punishment for wrongdoing. But she waited, never giving up hope, always quietly attuned to the God within her.
As she and Mary greeted one another Elizabeth felt a surge of something that was more than a baby kick -a deep, unsupported knowing that the woman she was embracing was the mother of him who was to come. Elizabeth was the first person to recognise Mary’s baby as the Christ. She was not only a woman of hope, courageous and joyful, she was a prophet. God’s storyline, then and now, is woven through women, the life bearers, nurturers, the very human touch of God.
This Advent, when the place of women in the Church, and in society, is for many a source of pain and conflict, we could look to Elizabeth – an older woman, faithful when it seemed hopeless, standing firm as she challenged religious customs and tradition. As Elizabeth did, we wait.