The same sign hung in the old Episcopal church in Washington each year.

"Slow down! Quiet, it's Advent."

Good advice, no doubt, but it filled me with guilt. I realized that yet again I would fail to observe Advent in a contemplative spirit. How could I?

Preparing for Christmas, American-style, made it almost impossible.

The answer came unexpectedly. A friend gave me a lapel button that had amused her. "Jesus is coming," it said. "Look busy."

This tongue-in-cheek admonition suddenly helped me realize I need not despair just because I was unable to spend December in monastic seclusion. Instead, I could be busy, so long as my energy and activity were focused on preparing a place for Christ.

With this new perspective, I looked afresh at Advent and the problems it had created for me and, in different ways, for my children. Advent, above all, is a time of waiting and expectation. Yet too often expectation was replaced by panic as I thought of all I had to do before Christmas, and as my children's behavior deteriorated under the strain of waiting for this feast of acquisitions.

But when I recalled that what we were waiting for was the birth of a child, I thought back to my own experience with pregnancy. Then, waiting was an active time, filled with preparations for the arrival of the new baby and tinged with the excitement of the unknown. As pregnancy advanced, natural tiredness helped stop me from doing too much. I learned to plan my time, setting priorities and giving up the less important stuff.

Now I try to prepare for Christmas the same way, setting realistic goals and looking at each activity as a way of getting ready for the child born at Christmas. I mark my calendar with "appointments" for the things I want to do to make sure they are not swept away with the latest crunch at work.

Baking the plum puddings and Christmas fruitcakes that are part of our tradition has sometimes been an almost meditative experience, and the excitement of making a gingerbread house or cutting out angel cookies has helped assuage my children's impatience.

Waiting is usually difficult for children, but marking the days teaches the true joy of expectation. Advent calendars and wreaths are simple rituals for this. Setting aside time to read the stories of Advent, from Isaiah's foretelling of the Messiah to Gabriel's announcement to Mary, helps us to keep in our minds what our waiting is all about. As an antidote to the canned Christmas carols that greet me each time I enter the supermarket or shopping mall, I keep in the car tapes of the first part of Handel's Messiah and other music that reminds me to prepare the way of the Lord.

Probably the most obvious clash between keeping Advent and prevailing culture is found in the emphasis on Christmas as a time to acquire as many coveted items as possible. For weeks now, our mail has been filled with catalogs, and the newspaper daily grows thicker with advertisements.

Like Santa, I make lists, but the lists are an attempt to keep gift-giving centered on giving back to God. First, I write down the names of those I want to give to--family, friends and people in need. Then, I think and pray about what will please the recipients, what will act as a token of God's love for them.

H. Richard Niebuhr wrote of five different ways in which Christian faith relates to a society's culture. From his perspective, I suppose my approach is not to see Christ set against culture, seeking to banish our festivities as the Puritans did. Instead, I invite Christ to transform our culture, bringing us to a deeper understanding of the way in which his birth changed the world we live in.

One of the most frequent prayers of the early church was "Come, Lord Jesus." It is my prayer during Advent as I try to make a place in every part of my life for Christ at Christmas.

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