Counter-intuitive as it may be for those of a particularly rigid faith, I marvel at the way ancient, pagan traditions can bring unexpected and quietly powerful meaning into the celebration of many Christian rituals.
And it makes sense that this is so. Pre-dating most of today's Christian holidays, early pagan practices are actually at the root of many of today's Christian traditions, including the season of Advent.
Long before the time of Christ, pagan communities, worldwide, set aside the weeks before the Winter Solstice as a time to honor the coming of the light.
(The date of Christmas was officially designated during the fourth century as Dec. 25th - the date Romans celebrated the Solstice).
Before I had any real awareness this Advent/pagan connection, the Advent season had been for me simply the designated four-week, headlong rush to Christmas that it is for many people today -- a crazy-busy season of fitting in the additional to-do lists of buying/wrapping/sending gifts, decorating the house, sending cards, on and on.
In those days, the beauty of the month of December was completely lost on me. In fact, the only natural sense of "December" I experienced back then was that it became so ridiculously and incongruently dark outside, earlier every day, which felt annoyingly disconcerting -- I mean, Christmas was supposed to be joyful, right?
So I made sure to keep the intrusive distraction of December darkness at arm's length, just out of reach, lest a foreboding, quiet emptiness creep in with it and jeopardize the utter but inevitable mayhem and frivolity of my Christmas preparations.
But when I began to study the ancient Celtic tradition, and learned of its keen awareness of humanity's deep, inner connections with the rhythms of the natural world, I began to realize how beautifully aligned the symbolism of the Advent season is to the imagery of the natural season leading to the Winter Solstice -- the play of light and dark, the waiting, even a kind of deep and prophetic longing.
On her luminous blog, A Design So Vast, Lindsey Mead speaks to the nascent light of her own inner longing as Solstice approaches, and offers a meditation by author Meg Casey that captures the hushed beauty of December:
December is a holy month. Maybe it is the dark, silky silence that descends so early that speaks to me of reverence. Maybe it is the promise that December holds -- that no matter how dark, how cold, how empty it can get, the light is coming back. Something always shifts in me when December arrives -- I embrace the darkness, and am eager for the coming solstice when the whole world is still and holds its breath, waiting to be reborn again.
Before I integrated a more organic, more pagan, gnosis into my experience of the Advent season, I hadn't thought of December's darkness as a holy, "silky silence that descends so early." I'd been asleep to the movement of the whole world toward stillness and turning. I'd been dismissing as irrelevant and bothersome any complexities or tensions this in-between time might offer.
But the pagans and their inner congruence with the natural order shook me awake -- awake, and tumbling into a dark and holy Advent, full of paradox and promise for all of us.
For the word "advent" literally means "the coming," and in this sense, these weeks in December are indeed a time of "advent" for all of us -- whether we consider ourselves religious or not. The light is coming. And all of Creation -- and we -- wait together for that coming.
What a not-to-be-missed treasure the natural season of Advent can be then, when the "nascent light" inside each of us can turn to, and answer, the promises of light surrounding us everywhere in the December dark -- the whisper of candlelight from darkened windows, the blue-black light of dusk against the silhouetted trees of winter.
This is Advent -- when, as sleepers, we awaken to our own light of love, deep within us, waiting to be reborn again in the dark stables of our own souls.