All I Want for Christmas is Light

A seminarian’s Advent reflections.

To my poor readers: The vignettes that follow are a literal take on advice from an HP editor who recommended I write on “what community feels like in a quasi-monastic life with an interval of study and religious devotion.” Perhaps in the spirit of Thomas Nagel, he was asking, “What is it like to be a seminarian?”

After my professor dismisses the Man and Sin class, I walk back across the street to my house through the wintry evening. I must finish reading for Patristics. Without changing out of my cassock, I fix a bowl of beans. I shiver a bit; my roommates and I keep the central heating off as long as possible to keep the oil bill low. I slip an overcoat over my robe. Standing at the kitchen counter, I dig into my supper and into my assignment, Pelikan’s Christian Tradition. I settle over to my recliner and read, “[M]ore succinctly, Tertullian accused Praxeas of driving out the Paraclete and crucifying the Father.” Oh, Jaroslav, how you slay me!

On to Gregory of Nyssa and Athanasius, but they prove more dense. I could punch through the discourses on hypostasis and ousia, yet the Holy Trinity merits my full energies. The shadows of night lengthen. I turn on my lamp to continue to study.

***

It’s a quiet Sunday. They generally are—I’m the first one into St. Mark’s and am tasked with preparing the church for the liturgy. I go through my checklist: hymn numbers, posted; doors, unlocked. Now to the entrance stairs. I turn on the overhead light: leaves, threads, and filth. That will not do. Fr. Jason told me that how one treats a building in his care reflects on how he treats people. Good thing I came in early. Looks like I’ll be vacuuming this morning before finishing my weekly rounds.

***

Today, it’s my turn to take a shift of children’s church. We’re supposed to be learning about the Tower of Babel, but a girl just asked about the Incarnation out of the blue. She asks a hard question: something about how the divine and human natures can exist in one Person. By habit, I want to give a sort of intellectual history, a nuanced approach that works charitably with all sides of the issue. But this is not what this 5-year-old wants—she wants the truth. She is the prototype for the Kingdom of Heaven. I become daunted and haunted by warnings about mill-stones around necks. I give an answer, whether from something I read or heard, I don’t remember. It is sufficient, and she happily moves on with the rest of the lesson.

Later, I write out another assignment for work. I find myself losing patience with doctrinal revisionists and misty academic theologians whose goal is wit and publishing, not contemplation. With vagaries and lies they spread a cloud over people’s minds. They would mislead the children. I walk alone to the seminary chapel to say matins, humming the tune of the Coventry Carol to myself. The image of one of the boys lighting the chapel altar candles enters my head. Satan would snuff him out, just as he tried to snuff out the bloodline of the Christ throughout history. Satan would snuff out me.

***

I lie alone on my bed and should be going on to more schoolwork. But instead I want to eat something to comfort myself. I feel stressed, lonely, and yet upset with the people in my life. I deem a bag of salty snack-food to be a source of happiness. Then I remember the stomach can only make hunger. I fidget a bit reaching for another book.

That evil thought knocks at my mind’s door. Not again; always the same thing. I grit my teeth, my knuckles whitening as I grasp the bedpost. “Not today,” I preach to myself, “God, Thou art my God.” I declared the same thing the day before, when the bishop gave the invitation to the Eucharist (right before the general confession). “‘Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways,’” I recall, “Yes, I meant it when I said that.” Nevertheless, the images flash across my mind. “Just a few seconds of entertainment, and I’ll be on my way.”

“God, Thou art my God.” “My God.” “My God, my God…” George Herbert had it right. Suddenly, the heat of temptation subsides, much more quickly than usual. I sense being pulled upwards, as if by wings. My family, my congregations, my priests, my fellow students, my professors—they intercede for me.

That afternoon, I am reminded of hurt relationships, the result of indolence or an unbridled tongue. My carelessness leaves a swath of damage, and such behavior drives people from the presence of Christ. I’d told myself I was a lionheart: boldly saying the Right Thing or refusing time with people because I had Really Important Things to do. Some days, open and patient relationships with a variety of people are like a second Babel to me. Why can’t everyone just be an INTJ and work their own stuff out? There’s too much evil in the world to worry about our little soap operas.

St. Gregory the Great applies his lashes. Conversations ensue, and I try to rebuild bridges. In the future, the Church does not need some Hotspur clergyman on her hands. Am I really fit for this work? I’m like a bull in a china shop. I remember my grandfather sitting in his easy chair, smelling an Augusta County breeze of hay, manure, and the spilt blood of Civil War dead. “It don’t ever let up, do it?” he was asking me after one of his troublesome days. “No,” I answer out loud as I type in my bedroom. Though in my own house, I feel thrown out into the desert wastes, but they say that the children of Israel were guided at night by a Pillar of Flame in the wilderness.

***

For Advent, St. Mark’s hosts a “quiet day” on Saturday. A guest, Fr. David, offers devotionals. Afterward, parishioners break off to meditate in silence. I head up to the children’s chapel, where I think on the preceding lesson: “Advent is a penitential season of preparation for Christ’s coming. And so the characteristic question of Advent is, ‘Are you ready?’ Like December 25th and the Christmas shopping and the Christmas cookies and the Christmas decorations and all of that–Christmas comes whether we’re ready or not, thank God. Our Lord comes, whether we’re ready or not, thank God. Thank God.”

***

“So what do you want for Christmas?” my mother asks. I mumble, “Oh, nothing in particular.” As my new station in life is teaching me, I don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy. In fact, if you were to talk to a monk, they’d say you don’t really need any possessions. This is their witness to both the Church and the world.

In another sense, my parents couldn’t purchase what I really want. Besides, they already gave It. I recollect bedtime when I was four. At my bedside, my mother asks, “Which do you want to read?” “Do the one about the raising of Lazarus.”

Now we must all press deeper into this first and greatest gift. It’s a confusing world I find myself in, but for Morning Prayer I sing the greatest Advent hymn:

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Barton Gingerich

Barton Gingerich is a Master of Divinity student at Reformed Episcopal Seminary and a fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He holds a B. A. in History from Patrick Henry College.

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