It’s cold today, even for mid-December, with the mercury hanging around in the low to mid-20s. There’s just enough blue between the clouds to call it “partly sunny.” The birds hop from the bare lilac to the feeders hanging on our deck. And of course, our friend the red squirrel does his best to fill his belly with seed, too.

An ordinary late autumn day in the extraordinary season of Advent. Extraordinary because we are invited to pause, to prepare not only our gifts, our decorations, our holiday menus and our travel itineraries, but also our hearts. To seek the stillness of the midnight stable within, where God prepares to be born anew in human flesh.

This ancient story calls on longings and urges even older than itself — for hope, renewal and community in the midst of darkness, isolation, futility and pain. It has moved countless artists in all media, from medieval painters and sculptors to Charles Dickens, Christina Rossetti and Dr. Seuss.

This time bids us stop, look inward, reflect on what is most important, from a habitable planet to food for our neighbors and ourselves to the loved ones, present and absent, who fill our hearts and minds at Christmas.

There are two particular pieces of writing about this season that stay with me from year to year. I would like to share them here. The first is a poem by Madeleine L’Engle, titled “Advent.”

This is the irrational season,

when love blooms bright and wild.

Had Mary been filled with reason,

There’d have been no room for the child.

And the second is an excerpt from Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” where Scrooge’s nephew Fred pays homage to Christmas.

“There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round — apart from … the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

The beauty of this speech, to me, is in its decency and humility. I love his referring to other people as “fellow-passengers to the grave,” a beautiful and poignant reminder that now is the time to be kind, for we cannot take tomorrow for granted. Dickens does not chide us for having “shut-up hearts,” but urges us, pleads with us, to open them while we still can.

I recently saw a film called “Mission: Joy,” which presents a conversation between the Dalai Lama and the late Anglican Bishop Tutu of South Africa. More than once, these two profoundly spiritual men said the key to finding joy is to seek the happiness of others. This is hardly news, but the fact that two such revered figures confirmed it from their own experience is enough to make me think again about how to incorporate it into my life.

I wish you all the blessings of Christmas, mostly especially peace, joy and love.

Sarah E. Reynolds is a former editor of The Republican Journal.