As we approach the season of Advent, you may be looking forward to liturgical traditions. Perhaps you’ll be lighting the Advent candles cradled in an evergreen wreath on dark winter evenings or decorating a Jesse Tree with ornaments that tell the story of God’s love and care for humanity. Maybe you’ll play the season’s haunting hymns like O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Each of these traditions are designed to orient our hearts toward the Incarnation. We need Advent, and not just as a liturgical season, but as an attitude in our souls oriented toward spiritual growth.
My experience of Advent was forever changed after I read the twentieth century English Catholic writer Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of God. Houselander’s writing about Mary, the Mother of God, in this beautiful spiritual classic helped me to encounter the Advent spirituality of our Lady in a deeper way. By bearing Christ into the world, Mary models the Christian life for all of us. Houselander highlights that the miracle of the Incarnation is made possible through Mary’s openness to God’s plan, which allows her to be like a hollowed out reed, perfectly crafted into an instrument that God uses to play his music into the world (hence the title of the book).
This is a lovely thought that we connect with the warm and sentimental feelings often evoked by the Nativity. But when we consider that we too are called to the same Marian attitude of faithful obedience, we might find this call challenging, convicting, and even, at times, unappealing. The Advent spirit of openness that Mary models for us requires what Houselander calls “the Emptiness.” She compares Mary’s virginity to an empty vessel that is to be filled with God.