Originally published in The Catholic Times December 11,2016
After a lovely and unusual Thanksgiving weekend spent with my two sisters and their husbands, I was caught unawares by Advent. Oh, in a vague sort of way I knew it was coming, but I was busy with work, publishing a book, and cleaning the house for my company.
When they left on Saturday afternoon, I ran errands and fell asleep, stretched out on the couch. Then suddenly it was Sunday, and I had not prepared a wreath. Resisting the urge to run out and buy candles, I decided to use what was already around the house.
Over the years, my wreath has evolved into something decidedly untraditional. Forty years ago, inspired by Black Elk (a Lakota holy man who, I later learned, became a Catholic catechist), I sewed and beaded four tiny red leather pouches filled with a mixture of sage and sweet grass symbolic of kinnikinnick used by some Native Americans in their great peace pipes and in other rituals.
The pouches rested on four direction points of the wreath: North, East, South, and West. A feather, shells, and a small buffalo cut from leather also decorated the pine boughs, a reminder that God is the Creator of all things, and that all things are made holy by the Incarnation.
Eventually, allergies and bronchitis set off by aromatic resin and the mold that clung to the freshly cut pine necessitated its removal. I thought about artificial greenery but decided against it.
Instead, I used beeswax vigil candles arranged on a round linen doily or tray covered with a deep blue napkin. The little pouches, feather, shells, and buffalo remained. A stone from the shores of the Sea of Galilee, gift of a friend, became a regular addition. Once I added a bird’s nest and soft, dried pampas grass plumes. Everything belongs in this circle. We stand on holy ground.
This year, I found tucked in a drawer some beeswax candles from Burton Parish, the colonial Episcopalian church in Williamsburg, VA. The tapers would just fit into the two simple glass candelabra that my parents had used to decorate the table at their wedding reception.
I washed and dried the candle holders, remembering an old photo of my parents, their families, and friends gathered around a long table in Dad’s family home for the celebration. The candelabra would gather my family and the human family into the circle of my “wreath.”
Along with the usual items, a wooden frog from Thailand, a fossil scallop picked up along the York River under Super Moon’s shine, a smooth piece of chert from a Paris walkway, and an arrowhead found on a Cape Cod beach joined the circle.
All the earth sits with me as I light the candles and remember the mystery of Jesus walking with us. Each night my parents and ancestors sit with me as do the people who were here first and who struggle still to protect the land and water that sustain us all. I am reminded of the ages and ages of this earth, of the creatures that filled it. The plants and animals, the birds and the sea creatures. We are a small part of an unimaginably huge cosmos. God loves it all and entered into our little corner to show us just how much.
The words of Isaiah that appear throughout our Advent liturgies overflow with images of nature. Crooked paths made straight. Parched land exulting. Steppes rejoicing and blooming with abundant flowers. Enemies, the lion and the lamb, lying down together. An old stump that looks dead sprouts a green shoot. Things are not always what they appear to be.
Isaiah says God will not judge by appearance. God stands with the poor and stands for justice.
I sit at my dining room table, looking at my “wreath” and longing for such a time. Advent tells me that time is already here. We celebrate Emanuel, God-with-us. Jesus draws the circle that encompasses all and invites us to join the work. He showed us how to live our lives, a part of God’s own, so the circle continues to grow in our time and place.
I sit at my dining room table, watching candle flames push away early morning darkness, and I have hope.
© 2016 Mary van Balen