Advent has come to Clear Creek. The weather, which had been unseasonably warm, has of late turned sharply cold. The rolling Ozark hills of Oklahoma’s Green Country, carpeted only recently in the vibrant color of life, turned rapidly a drab and dead rust color before the trees eagerly shed their leaves like handfuls of somber confetti. The sky, usually a vibrant blue, has been more frequently a heavy leaden grey. Crows have seemingly multiplied, filling the air with their harsh and clashing cries.
As I trudge outside in my heavy muck boots to unleash the chickens on our yard, the grass and skeletal trees are coated in a hoary blanket of frost that crunches beneath my feet. Breath leaves my nostrils in great clouds, like the fiery emanations of some mythical dragon. The chilled air seems thinner somehow, and I wrap my open jacket more tightly around me.
Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a day to remember the world’s remaking and the devil’s doom. And so we go to Mass. The sky is blue today, as if to celebrate, and streaked with thin wisps of clouds. It is the blue of the Virgin’s mantle.
As we drive down the long and dusty gravel road, cows graze lazily in the abbey’s pastures. Half shorn sheep look terrible in their mangy coats. We come around the corner and are greeted by the looming presence of the half constructed abbatial church. Still unfinished, it is nevertheless imposing, like a great pale creature that has wearily settled its massive bulk in the valley between the hills.
The crypt church, where Mass is held until the church is finished, is welcomingly warm. The sweet scent of incense greets us, a sign that the ancient worship, the pure and perennial sacrifice, is being offered and is ascending before God’s throne. We file into our seats, struggling to keep the children from making too large a commotion.
Shortly after Mass begins, men and boys are invited to join the monks in their procession through the cloister courtyard; an event that is a unique feature of the monastic Mass. Father guest master unlatches the intricately wrought iron gate of the sanctuary to allow us in, and we ascend the cold concrete stairs to the monk’s cloister.
The courtyard is not finished, and half of it is open to the outside. The chill of December air greets us as the monks slowly line the hallway of the courtyard. A statue of Our Lady holding the Christ child is at the end of the hall. A monk places a miter on Father Abbot’s head, and he intones prayers in Latin. The monks respond in swelling chorus with prayers of their own. Another monk swings incense and two more hold candles that flicker in the breeze. I do not know what they are saying, but it is hauntingly beautiful in the growing light of morning.
Here, surrounded by cold mountains of stone and the solemn cadence of the prayers of those who have abandoned all to seek and possess Christ, I am reminded of the cave of Bethlehem. The clouds of our breath could easily be the breath of the animals who inhabited the stable on that night of piercing cold when the Lord of All was born, dispossessed and shivering into a world that had no room for him.
We return to the crypt. The air is grey with the fog of incense. The ancient Kyrie, the only part of the Mass not in Latin, is chanted and the Mass continues. The Epistle and then Gospel are heard.
In Illo tempore: Missus est Angelus Gabriel a Deo in civitatem Galilaeae…
Father Abbot gives a sermon about the exalted brightness and privileges of the Virgin Mary and how her light will obliterate the darkness of evil. I miss a great deal of his sermon because I have to take one of the boys out temporarily, but it is seems an entirely fitting homily for this festal day.
The sermon ends. Father Abbot chants the Creed: Credo in unum Deum… The monks join with him, alternating in chorus like the waves of the sea. Max, my youngest boy, leans over and points to the statue of the Blessed Virgin enthroned at the side of the crypt chapel. “Dad, there’s Mary,” he says in an excited low whisper, as if revealing some tremendous secret. “Yes, you’re right,” I answer approvingly. “I love Mary. And Jesus,” he says.
Soon it is the Preface, my favorite part of the Mass—the call to all creation to praise, adore, and thank God our creator and redeemer. Our duty and our salvation. There are few things more gorgeous than than this chant.
The canon and then the race towards the summit, the consecration. The clanging gong of the abbey bells begins as the white-clad priest elevates the host. My boys crane their necks, straining to see the body, blood, soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. “Jesus is here. I want to see Jesus,” one of them whispers. “Yes, he’s here,” I respond. After the consecration, they begin to fidget again.
Christ did not come once. His advent was not a singular event. He comes again and again, every day, to his poor and pitiful creatures, dominated and blinded by passions and beset by sins. He descends upon our altars and into our hearts to become one with us. He is a God that loves us, a God that cannot bear to be far from his children but is compelled by the force of an unfathomable affection to draw near to us. His love cannot wait for us to cross the infinite chasm to be with him where he is, and so he descends into our brokenness if only to be among us.
This is the miracle of Advent. Our anticipation of his coming was not fulfilled two millennia ago. Nor will it be fulfilled at his final coming again. Our Advent watching is fulfilled every day, for he comes every day. He cannot bear to be away.
The watchfulness, the prayer, the preparation that Advent represents should be our daily mode of existence. “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation.” We should always be preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, always making room for him in the cave of our poor souls. We should strive to make them warm with love, dank and barren and inhospitable though they be. And we should invite his Mother to be there in our hearts too, to come in and to prepare a place for him. For where she is Christ is always at home.
Let us watch and wait. But let us not look forward to some distant parousia. Let us receive him daily, for daily he stands at the door and knocks. His presence is always close. He is a good God who loves mankind. He is the God who desires to dwell among us, in all our misery and brokenness and failure—not as a regal king, but as a poor and shivering child born among the pungent refuse of animals.
He is Emmanuel, the God who is always with us. Will we make room for him?