During the first weekend of December, nearly 200 ACE Teaching Fellows came together to welcome the Advent season. The term “Season’s Greetings” seems to take on an entirely new meaning when this community converges. Everyone who has experienced ACE knows the feeling. Offering hugs to any fellow ACEr knowing it will be reciprocated; the playful banter when you reconnect with an old friend; and the obligatory (and always slightly awkward) question of “So how’s it going in (enter ACE city here)?” “Season’s Greetings” does not suggest that the season of Christmas meets the person. Instead, people meet one another where they are and enter into the season together, awaiting the joyful coming of Christ that is promised in Advent.
It’s difficult to imagine a better way to begin this season and church year than the ACE December Retreat. On Thursday, the ACE teachers who arrived early greeted one another in airports, on 6th Street in Austin, and even for an extended period of time in a broken elevator at the hotel near the Texas State Capitol. Stories were shared on walks around the capital of Texas, on dance floors, and in hotel lobbies.
Friday morning brought even more "Season’s Greetings!" as every single ACE teacher was met by the cheery smiles of the ACE team at the Balcones Springs Retreat Center. The Texas sun shone gold across the lake and trees of the grounds, suggesting an early fall day rather than the first day of December. The weather would remain perfect the entire weekend, offering sunny days for ACE teachers to spend time together and cool nights to cozy up and share conversations with randomly assigned bunkmates in the cabins.
As the ACE Rio Grande Valley community made our way south after the weekend, we reflected on just how many greetings were shared by individuals of ACE in those first 24 hours of the retreat. There are quite literally thousands of permutations of greetings shared between people who have been in every corner of the country the past four months. The strength of the ACE community can be found within these greetings, the genuineness and ease that is felt with each and every conversation we share. Christian community is certainly found in moments of prayer and opportunities to experience the Sacraments with one another, but it’s also found in every smile, paired walk, cup of coffee, or quick hello during our time spent in ACE.
And so, like any good Christmas party, once the initial greetings took place, the celebration began. Friday was beckoned in with a powerful prayer service centering the retreatants on the central theme of the weekend from the book of Matthew, “We saw his star at its rising.” Friday night found ACE teachers spending time around the retreat grounds, with the highlight being the sharing of s'mores over a bonfire with a clear, starry night above.
Saturday was the day between the hellos and goodbyes of the retreat, the day when ACE teachers could fully just be in the presence of one another, welcoming in the Advent season. The busy day was filled with individual conversations, discernment talks, and community meetings. The business of the day was also complemented by an afternoon of recreation time when ACErs found themselves on the basketball court, by the lake, and even on the archery range. After the long day outside, ACErs were met with a Texas staple for dinner, barbecue, which they enjoyed under the pavilion at sunset.
Saturday evening provided ACE teachers with the opportunity to participate in a Reconciliation service followed by Lessons and Carols. Nearly 200 members of ACE welcoming in the Advent season through praise and worship was a transformative moment. The Rio Grande room filled with lyrics of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” signifying the joyful hope in which we wait during the days of Advent.
All of the beautiful, meaningful, and personal moments of the weekend culminated in one final greeting of the Christmas season on Saturday night, the annual ACE Christmas party. The pavilion was transformed into a dance floor and recent ACE graduates Catherine Swick (ACE 28) and Danny Strebar (ACE 28) took the DJ stand. ACErs from across the country, sporting their ugliest Christmas sweaters, spent the night singing, laughing, and dancing right into Sunday morning. No season could be greeted with such energy and camaraderie than Christmas in ACE.
But where greetings occur, farewells are sure to follow. Sunday morning offered one final mass together, a poignant reminder of the Christian community that had been nurtured throughout the weekend. The brunch that followed was filled with Christmas card exchanges, conversations about weekend highlights, and many, many of those famous ACE hugs to say goodbye. December Retreat reminds us of our why in ACE. To be members of such a wide-reaching, service-oriented, and faith-filled community is a blessing we will not soon forget. The retreat was simply a reminder of the depth of the relationships we have built throughout our time in ACE, a rekindling of the relationships that sustain us throughout the busy school year. The opportunity to greet one another and enter the Advent season together will be my best Christmas gift this year.