I’ve never written about this before, but today is the first Sunday of Advent, and it’s also both C.S. Lewis’ and Madeleine L’Engle’s birthday, and so I am going to try to describe something – at least to start.
I remember a feeling I used to get around this time each year- every year, beginning with my earliest memories. It was kicked off by… well, the watery sharp early-winter light in New York; the sensation of the cold inside my nostrils; the scent of cut Christmas trees as I walked between the forests that appeared on the sidewalks on Amsterdam; the knowledge that the countdown to Christmas vacation had begun in earnest.
Something’s going to happen. I felt it at other times during the year, too, but it cropped up most reliably at Advent. It wasn’t Christmas exactly that I was looking forward to– that too, but this was something else that I was expecting, something spooky but good. Every time we had the first snow of the year, there was part of me that expected that snow to just go on and on, for this to be the time when we entered in to the part of history where it was always Winter, but a good Winter.
Maybe Peak Oil would happen. Maybe electricity would stop working, and we would learn to wrap up snugly in our sleighs that were pulled by shaggy horses through Central Park; maybe we would learn to live in a world without movies and TV, where we told our own stories; maybe we would learn to treasure boxes of matches as life-saving sources of flame.
The North, I thought, each time the first snow happened: the North was coming down to make the City magic.
Something’s going happen. Something’s about to begin. Pay attention.
This tense and waiting time, this poised expectancy, this sense that the world itself was pregnant, was not something I was taught. And I thought that it was embedded in the year itself: it didn’t occur to me that there might be December which was just December, a month in the calendar: That sense was not something in me, but in the year, embedded in this time as sublimity might be embedded in a place, in Wordsworth’s Lake District, in the Alps, in Avalon.
It was all mixed up with other good New York Christmas feelings: It had to do with the shows we went to each year, that we dressed up to go to: with the velvet dresses in jewel tones that I wore, with hot chocolate after ice skating at Rockefeller Center. But it was separate from them too.
It wasn’t a cute feeling, or worldly-wholesome in exactly the way that Thanksgiving was: it was like the beginning of a good invasion; or like a warning: it was a nighttime feeling, not a daylight one; it was uncanny.
I must have realized in earlier years how precisely that watchful, uncanny wholesomeness is what the Church means by Advent. I must have.
Something’s about to happen, and if you think you understand it, or that it’s cozy, entirely, or safe, entirely, or will leave you and the world unchanged on the other side of it, think again.
Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.