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Embracing the Great Wide Empty of Advent

November 27, 2020


As we approach the season of Advent, you may be looking forward to liturgical traditions. Perhaps you’ll be lighting the Advent candles cradled in an evergreen wreath on dark winter evenings or decorating a Jesse Tree with ornaments that tell the story of God’s love and care for humanity. Maybe you’ll play the season’s haunting hymns like O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Each of these traditions are designed to orient our hearts toward the Incarnation. We need Advent, and not just as a liturgical season, but as an attitude in our souls oriented toward spiritual growth. 

My experience of Advent was forever changed after I read the twentieth century English Catholic writer Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God. Houselander’s writing about Mary, the Mother of God, in this beautiful spiritual classic helped me to encounter the Advent spirituality of our Lady in a deeper way. By bearing Christ into the world, Mary models the Christian life for all of us. Houselander highlights that the miracle of the Incarnation is made possible through Mary’s openness to God’s plan, which allows her to be like a hollowed out reed, perfectly crafted into an instrument that God uses to play his music into the world (hence the title of the book). 

This is a lovely thought that we connect with the warm and sentimental feelings often evoked by the Nativity. But when we consider that we too are called to the same Marian attitude of faithful obedience, we might find this call challenging, convicting, and even, at times, unappealing. The Advent spirit of openness that Mary models for us requires what Houselander calls “the Emptiness.” She compares Mary’s virginity to an empty vessel that is to be filled with God. 

But this concept of “emptiness” can rub us the wrong way. To become empty, wouldn’t we have to give up, well, ourselves? When we hear St. John the Baptist’s exhortation that for Christ to increase we must decrease, we can believe that the Christian life means giving up “who we really are” so that God can replace “the real us” with some cardboard cutout pious person. But this is a misunderstanding of our deepest and most authentic identity. When we look to the lives of the saints we do not find pious caricatures or automatons. God shows us through Mary and the saints what it looks like to be a human being fully alive and fully themselves. It is our reticence to become vessels of God, not our faithfulness, that prevents us from becoming truly ourselves.

The saints show us that this Advent emptiness and openness to God is what makes them so vividly human. They have likes and dislikes, and gifts and challenges, and different personalities, and God uses all those aspects of their souls that he wired them with to display his glory. Like them, we find ourselves when we empty ourselves to make room for Christ. 

But what kind of vessel will we become? In addition to the image of the reed playing the music of God, Houselander offers two other metaphors: a chalice crafted to make room to hold the Precious Blood, and a bird’s nest, concave and readied with warm feathers to care for and protect new life. Surely we are all called to be instruments of God’s plan in the world, vessels united with his suffering, and hearts providing warmth and life-giving love for our fellows. Our “empty” obedience is the soil through which Christ is born in us—and an Advent attitude awaits that spiritual birth.

And that is the other necessary but difficult aspect of what Advent calls us to: waiting. Our spiritual growth does not happen overnight. Advent, Houselander says, is a seed. Advent is a secret. Advent is something growing that is not yet seen. Something is happening to us by the workings of God’s grace—not through our own strength. She writes,

It is a time of darkness, of faith. We shall not see Christ’s radiance in our lives yet; it is still hidden in our darkness; nevertheless, we must believe that He is growing in our lives; we must believe it so firmly that we cannot help relating everything, literally everything, to this almost incredible reality. This attitude it is which makes every moment of every day and night a prayer.

During the secret time, the darkness of Advent, like Mary we have to wait for God to make himself known. But we often resist the waiting and the emptiness and seek distraction. We stay busy, overscheduled, and fill our lives with noise because we are afraid to embrace that empty stillness of Advent—and yet without it, we cannot prepare our souls for Christ to be born in us. St. Teresa of Kolkata called herself merely a little pencil in the hand of God—what a beautiful message he wrote to the world through her faithfulness! God is calling us this Advent to that obedient emptiness so that Christ can grow in us as he did in the womb of Mary. He is calling us to allow him to be made flesh through us so we can bear his love into the world.