the Vespers, Advent, & the darkness

This morning, I listened to the Rachmaninov Vespers while I drank a cup of tea and wrote in my journal. (As I mentioned previously, starting on November 1st I listen to the Vespers as often as I feel so moved throughout the winter.)

‘The Vespers’ is actually an incorrect translation — the piece is better translated as All-Night Vigil. But I’ve called them the Vespers for so long that I sort of can’t stop.  The piece was composed in a bit under two weeks (!) by Sergei Rachmaninov in 1915. They were received fantastically by popular audiences and critics alike, but performances ceased after the rise of the Soviet Union when religious music was banned.

I was introduced to the Vespers when my college choir performed one piece from them, Bogoroditse Djevo, when I was twenty years old. (In hindsight, it was the last piece of music I performed before my father passed away.) Bogoroditse Djevo is a setting of the Hail Mary. We performed this piece at our Christmas concert. And performing Bogoroditse Djevo was a truly transcendent experience — the crescendo a swelling of golden light, when I neither felt my feet on the floor nor saw anything to my left of right — I simple seemed to be suspended in air, connected to my fellow singers and my conductor by the strong cord of this 100-year-old piece of music. And every time I listen to this piece, not only do I feel that overwhelmed, too-big swell in my chest, but I also feel the swelling of tears pressing against my eyes, the swooping of painful emotion in my stomach. Bogoroditse Djevo is too much, it’s too heavy. It is not a holly-jolly-Christmas carol.


This year, David and I are trying to set some of our traditions for December. In the past several years, I have done things on my own — written daily during Advent, read passages from books — but this year, we’re doing things together. We have an Advent wreath (well, the best I could do was four candles in a pie plate with some evergreen clippings we gathered) — each Sunday night we take turns reading passages from the Bible, we read a quote, we place a relevant object in the ‘wreath,’ and we light the candles. Every night before dinner, we light the candles again and read a poem about winter. We decorated the apartment — I made gingerbread cookies, we set up our little two-foot-tall artificial tree and decked it with ornaments. Every evening, we open a little box on my childhood PlayMobil Advent calendar, and set up a scene of ‘Santa’s workshop.’ I remember setting those toys up as a kid with my family, and smile. I read David A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas over the course of several days, and I’ll probably do it twice more before the season is over.

A few nights ago, we talked about Advent, and David shared his memories of it growing up. Basically, what it boiled down to was : yeah, it was cool, but the point was Christmas. It was a countdown : when would Santa get there and we get to party and eat four kinds of pie and open all the PRESENTS? I was the same way : Christmas was always the highlight of my year. In a BIG way. My favorite season was (and is) winter. I collected snow globes. I was the keeper of family traditions, setting up the crèche, singing carols in the car, and just pushing everyone to keep the jolly spirit of the season going as much as possible. I was all about Christmas.

I’m still totally into Christmas — I haven’t turned Grinch, I love the whole season. But now, I also have the pain. The writer Sarah Bessey, in her beautiful blog post “in which Advent is for the ones who know longing,” writes,

            “Advent has become more important to me as I’ve gotten older. When I was young, I couldn’t understand this emphasis on waiting – let’s get to the Christmas joy! Now that I have wept, now that I have grieved, now that I have lost, now that I have learned to hold space with and for the ones who are hurting, now I have a place for Advent.”

The Vespers, the candles, the journaling — they create that space for me. Space for the kind of emotions so big they carry you. Space for this new tension : no longer a child’s anticipation of gifts, but now the feeling of remembering the Christmases of your childhood while facing the reality that those will never happen again — you’re an adult now — and the truth that even at Christmastime, the world is full of sorrow and pain and injustice. It will not be what it was. While I browse for gifts for my husband, I pick up a book and open my mouth to say “oh, this would be perfect for Daddy –“ but instead I close my mouth, turn on the spot, and wait for my blurry vision to clear while All I Want For Christmas Is You pipes over the bookstore’s loudspeakers.

Advent is the place where I wait, aching, for God to meet me. The dark space of Advent blooms out around me, making room for the mix of pain, sadness, joy, and love that come with the holidays now that I’ve lost my father and now that I’ve suffered and now that I’ve grown up.

Advent is the year turning towards darkness. The ache, the longing, the waiting. The glorious, beautiful, wonderful, painful spark of birth and newness coming in through the death of the year. I will celebrate and sing Christmas songs — I will wrap gifts in silly reindeer paper and watch my favorite old movies — I will drink wine and laugh and I’ll bake for you, don’t you worry — but first, I will pause for a moment to light the candles and remember.