However, there are also lesspleasant images: overcrowded shopping malls, crammed parking lots and exhausted people who can't wait for the holidays to be over.
It is ironic that the "holiday season" coincides exactly with Advent-the Church's season devoted to quiet, reflective waiting and patient preparation of our hearts for the coming of Christ.
So when I was asked by a publisher to do a book about Advent, my first thought was to write something critical of the way we presently celebrate the holiday season, bemoaning the secularism, materialism and busyness that make it so hard for us to experience the true religious spirit. But very quickly another more appealing approach for a book suggested itself, one that comes more naturally to me as a Benedictine monk: to try "seeing" the holidays instead of just "doing" them.
As a monk I've been taught to pay a lot of attention to "seeing" rather than to simply "doing;" that is, I try not to get so wrapped up in activities that I forget to reflect on the meaning of what I am doing. This is part of the reason that I spend time each day in lectio divina (holy reading), which entails a slow, meditative reading of scripture, listening for what a particular passage, phrase or word might be saying to me personally. While I'm doing this reading, I keep asking myself: "What is the Lord telling me in this particular passage?"
Over the years this questioning has become a habit, which carries over from holy reading into the rest of my life. For example I might ask myself: "What could the Lord be trying to teach me as I'm sitting here with this flat tire on the Garden State Parkway?" In other words, I try to cultivate a contemplative stance toward everyday events and the people around me, trying to see in them a deeper meaning, a message from God.
My favorite definition of contemplation is "a long, loving look at the real." The practical starting point for this kind of careful looking at reality is a pair of assumptions laid down by Saint Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480–ca. 546). His "Rule for Monks" still provides the basis for the monastic life that Benedictine men and women follow, focusing on two fundamental principles. The first is God is present everywhere. For example, the monastery's tools should be treated with the same reverence as the sacred vessels of the altar. The second is Christ is present in everyone we meet-thus the Benedictine tradition of hospitality and the special care to be shown towards the sick, the poor and the elderly.
I decided that if the overwhelming reality in our lives during November and December is the inevitable busyness of the holidays, then rather than criticize this state of affairs, I would instead take a long, loving look at some of the everyday things that make up the holiday season-from traffic jams to Christmas cookies. I set about writing my book of Advent meditations with the conviction that Saint Benedict was correct; that I would find in the busy, seemingly secular realities of the holidays plenty of deeper messages and spiritual meanings.
I was delighted with the results. The more meditations I wrote, the more I experienced the wisdom of Saint Benedict's two assumptions, and my careful loving looks at very ordinary things did indeed yield some beautiful insights about Advent and Christmas.
Ultimately I wrote 37 reflections-one for every day from the first Sunday of Advent through Jan. 1. These reflections have now been published by New Yorkbased Morehouse Publishing as a book entitled: "From Holidays to Holy Days: a Benedictine Walk Through Advent," (Web site: www.morehousepublishing.org)
I would like to share the first meditation, one that had occurred to me many times over the years. It has to do with those holiday banners that decorate lampposts along certain streets during the holidays.
I'm driving down South Orange Avenue from Norfolk Street toward the center of downtown Newark when I notice how the holiday banners of candles, snowmen and giant snowflakes on the lampposts lining both sides of the street form a colorful corridor. I smile at a vivid childhood memory of the Christmas decorations on South Orange Avenue in Vailsburg reaching across the roadway on wires to create a welcoming pathway of lights and garlands, like a festive outdoor tunnel leading everyone toward Christmas.
In the ancient days, when a king or an emperor was coming to visit a province, the roads along the route would be decorated in honor of the visiting dignitary and the citizens would come out of the city to escort the honored visitor through their gates. Such an official visit was called a parousia in Greek. In the New Testament, the word parousia came to refer to what would eventually become one of the most important themes of the Advent season: the second coming of Christ as King at the end of time. During Advent the Church celebrates the fact that for those who are prepared, the parousia will be a time of glory and reward, of resurrection and blessing.
As I continue down the bannerlined avenue, I wonder if Jesus will make His triumphal way down a street like this at His final coming. I start to imagine the victorious Christ entering Newark along this long parade route-the curbs of South Orange Avenue lined with crowds shouting and clapping, waving and welcoming the Lord into our city as He comes not just on a royal visit but to deliver us all at last from the grip of sin, suffering and death.
In the distance, Newark's skyline stands against a great bank of white clouds that glow in the midmorning sunlight. Jesus' words come to mind right away: "You will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 26:64). Maybe He will come riding on some mighty clouds, like those just above the Prudential building.
But as I drive past the last banner, I change my mind. No-I decide that I had it right the first time: the Lord will certainly come right down South Orange Avenue, welcomed by cheering crowds along a colorful corridor lined with holiday banners.
During the Advent and Christmas season, I encourage everyone to find a moment for quiet seeing instead of busy doing, for taking a careful, loving look at the people and events that fill your life. I pray that you may find in these moments the true message of this holy season: God is living among us and constantly offering each of us the gift of boundless, surprising, self-sacrificing love.
(Editor's note: Father Albert Holtz, O.S.B., is a graduate of Saint Benedict's Prep. He serves as Benedictine monk of Newark Abbey, where he is Novice Master and Director of Oblates. He is the author of five books of meditations and "From Holidays to Holy Days: a Benedictine Walk Through Advent" (2008) from Morehouse Publishing.)