Gretchen E. Ziegenhals: "Behold!" and the practice of opening windows on Advent calendars

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Young people are trained through social media to graze. But an annual practice of opening Advent calendars can help them learn to gaze, imagining the world as it could be and not just as it is.

The tradition of physically counting down the days of Advent from Dec. 1 through Dec. 24 originated in the mid-19th century with German Protestants who made chalk marks on doors or lit a succession of candles. Gerhard Lang is credited with creating the first printed Advent calendar in the early 1900s, inspired by one his mother crafted for him when he was a child.

Like me, my friend Kate grew up with the practice of marking the journey to Christmas with paper Advent calendars. Every year, her mother would go to a Chapel Hill bookstore that featured an entire wall of Advent calendars and select one for each of her daughters. Kate has carried on the tradition with her own girls, Genevieve and Poppy -- and between Kate and her mother, the family’s collection of calendars has now grown to more than 100.

Each Advent, Kate and her daughters select 20 to put up on doors, walls and tables, with the girls each picking two or three for their own bedroom doors.

Some of the calendars are sacred, and some are secular. Some tell the nativity story, and some tell the story of the Nutcracker or Santa Claus.

When the girls open the numbered windows of their Christian Advent calendars, what they expect to see is not just the world as it is. Rather, they view the images with religious expectations. Raised in the church, the girls understand that the pictures, such as a candle or a manger, have meaning in light of the entire Christian narrative of birth, death and resurrection.

Genevieve and Poppy’s tradition has made me think about the Advent calendar as a tool in the practice of “beholding.”

“Behold” is a word used by heavenly messengers during in-breaking moments in the Christian narratives. It signals an explosion of the sacred into our lives and a radical reframing of meaning.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary in the Gospel of Luke and says, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31 RSV). Gabriel is telling Mary to pay attention because her life will never be the same. Mary replies with an acceptance of this transformation: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (1:38). How was the young Mary prepared for this beholding moment?

The practice of beholding is the opposite of the way social media trains our young people with its restless surfing and scrolling. Beholding exhorts us to stop and notice something important and urgent. Social media trains us to graze; beholding trains us to gaze.

Though Genevieve and Poppy may not yet “behold” when they open the windows of 20 Advent calendars each evening, they are not grazing. Rather, they are working at a practice that is forming them.

The formation comes in part through the physical work of opening 20 tiny windows. The girls must be faithful to the practice or the count is off. They must coordinate who takes a turn each day, with one doing odd, one doing even. They must be patient and focused so they don’t skip any calendars. They must take the time to accomplish the task, usually after supper. Some of the calendars have gotten familiar, and they guess during supper what will be behind a certain window: “I think it’s the sheep!”

And the task is repeated window after window, day after day, year after year.

The repetition of opening windows, like the repetition in other Christian practices, can form our imaginations, preparing a place in our minds and hearts so that we are open to beholding the miracle of the incarnation.

Genevieve and Poppy are still young, so it’s hard to name the long-term formation that will result from this practice of Advent calendars. So far, the formation for these girls, according to their mom, includes developing a strong sense of tradition and an awareness of the liturgical calendar, learning the value of waiting and anticipation, and learning to look carefully in order to see.

But my hunch is that this practice of opening windows is opening their imaginations as well, so that one Christmas they will be surprised by joy as they “behold.”