Advent’s intention is to awaken the most profound and basic emotional memory within us, namely, the memory of the God who became a child.
This is a healing memory; it brings hope.
The purpose of the Church’s year is continually to run through her great history of memories, to awaken the heart’s memory so that it can discern the star of hope.
All the feasts in the Church’s calendar are events of remembrance and hence events of hope.
These events, of such great significance for mankind, which are preserved and opened up by faith’s calendar, are intended to become personal memories of our own life history through the celebration of holy seasons by means of liturgy and custom.
Our personal memories are nourished by mankind’s great memories; in turn, it is only by translating them into personal terms that these great memories are kept alive.
Man’s ability to believe always depends in part on faith having become dear on the path of life, on the humanity of God having manifested itself through the humanity of men.
No doubt each of us could tell his own story here as to what the various memories of Christmas, Easter or other festivals mean in his life.
—Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope.
From his book Seek That Which Is Above: Meditations on Major Feasts
I read this excerpt from Pope Benedict’s Advent meditation after a conversation with Bella. She was telling me that she was re-reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas and how much more it means to her this year. How she identifies with the child narrator, being on the fringes of the conversations between the aunts and uncles, sneaking more food than was good for her, etc.
And of course she’s sad that this year our holidays will be constrained.
But as I read the meditation from Pope Benedict, it struck me that Bella was doing exactly what he describes: translating the feasts into personal terms, creating personal memories, cherishing them. The recitation of her memories to me is a way of solidifying them, examining them, making them into something… more.
She’s recalling the goodness of Christmas past. She’s hoping for more Christmases to come. Memory… healing… hope.
Christ the child comes to us in time. In his time, more than two thousand years ago, in Bethlehem of Judea, but also in my time, 2020, Holbrook. He comes to me as a child who sang Happy birthday Jesus with balloons and a birthday cake at the Newman Center at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1970s. He came to me as a teen, jaded and longing for a lost innocence, grieving childhood gone. He came to me as a new bride, pregnant with my first child, slightly sick still, longing to see her face. He came to me as tired mother, heavy with my fifth, too sick to go to Mass or to feast on Christmas and wanting it to end– both the sickness and the pregnancy; longing for a new year and a new baby.
He comes to me now. In this pandemic year. Longing for my parents in Texas– have I ever before gone this long without holding them in my arms, seeing them truly face to face and not mediated by a screen? Longing for my sister and my brothers. Longing to go out to the world unmasked and without fear. He comes to me as hope. Hope for this present time, hope for my future life.
He comes to me as hope for eternity. Hope to see my lost baby one day face to face. Hope to be reunited with my cherished dead: friends, grandparents, my uncle. The wedding feast of heaven, the mansion with many rooms, the place prepared for me–me!– from the beginning of the world.
He comes to me as mercy. As love. As a savior. So many things, so many memories, so many verses from the word, so many liturgies and prayers and moments. Could any book contain them all?
I remember a star in Bethlehem. I remember an angel announcing to shepherds. I remember the star ornament, a star shaped cookie with sprinkles. I remember the angel on our tree with her shining halo, shimmering skirt and wings, magic. I remember her tattered and rumpled with crazy hair, a disgrace. I remember singing about stars, angels, a child.
I remember lights, music, food, gifts, midnight Mass, Christmas morning. So many many many memories to cherish. So very much to hope for.
Mankind’s great memories–God becoming Man and dwelling among us– became real to me in this living out, year by year, with family and friends, the liturgies and customs particular to us in this time and in these places I have called home.
The red silk poinsettias with their yellow hearts and green wire stems which I eagerly placed into the tall graceful vases. The vases on the mantel where the stockings were hung in the dark wood on thumbtacks. And on Christmas morning were fond on the heath, bulging with nuts and candy and other good things. In that house on Ohlen Road, my first home, so dear to me I can still walk through its rooms in memories. I remember the texture of the floors and the excitement of a world glorious and beautiful but, even in the glow of childhood, not free of pains and sorrows.
And the echoes of my childish joy, my delight in those familiar rituals and taking on the tasks of decorating– I now see my daughter doing the same. She hangs the wreath. She ties up the ribbons. She lights the candles. She reads the books. Her ornaments are different, but the pride and joy in ownership, the delight in memory… they are the same. What did my mother remember when she watched me? What will my daughter remember when she watches her daughter? This, too, is Christmas. This, too, is incarnation. The Word, part of my flesh, part of my memory, part of that weaving of my life, the Church’s life, His life, all of us in a tapestry called Advent, called Christmas.