by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

It’s a strange contradiction. Just as Advent arrives with its invitation to reflect and wait, life around us seems to speed up with a growing set of year-end social engagements and present-buying. It’s also the end of the academic year and parents with school-going children are only just surfacing after exams, prize-givings and nativity plays.

The emotional experience of this time leading up to Christmas is varied. For some it is one of emptiness and loneliness – feeling the loss of the scaffolding of ordinary events and activities that get placed on hold until January, as everyone else seems to be preparing to spend time with loved ones.

Some experience a deep sense of exhaustion at the end of a busy year. They have a desperate desire to just stop and hibernate rather than to have to juggle a spate of social commitments and parties.

For many this is a time of stress. The burden of how to pay for all the extras – special foods and Christmas gifts. The tension around juggling complex family dynamics.

Always there is for those who lost someone significant in the course of the year, the experience of anticipating a first Christmas without them.

And for some there is a sense of excitement and joy at the prospect of being reunited with loved ones. They look forward to the gift of quality time away from the usual demands of work.

In trying to manage our feelings as well as the practical demands, it is easy to miss the invitation to make space for the One who longs to meet us exactly where we are. God who “gets it” – longs to be allowed in to our excitement, or loneliness, or grief or exhaustion – or wherever it is that we find ourselves in this season.

Advent reminds us to ponder the deeper meaning beneath the exterior preparations. The gift of the hope offered us in Christ, is offered in whatever messy place we may find ourselves. We don’t need to have bought the perfect crackers or have everything sewn up. Jesus was not born in ideal circumstances.

Some simple things may help us as we prepare:

Take a few moments each day to pause and remember with awe the reality that God comes into the chaos and mess of our world and “pitches his tent among us.” You might want to slowly read one of the Advent readings for the day and let it soak in.

Choose a character in the Advent story as a companion for these days. Perhaps Mary or Elizabeth, or John the Baptist. Talk with them about their experiences and about your own. Allow God to use your imagination to take you into a deeper understanding of this time.

Ask God to open your eyes each day to one person or situation where you can bring Advent hope. It might be as simple as a smile or a phone call.

Don’t get drawn into a vortex of unnecessary stress. Let this be a time for God to restore and refresh you. Use your senses to savour the simple gifts – and be reminded of the Giver whose coming we await.