Christmas happens in one week, and I have done exactly zero shopping. I mean not one, single gift bought.
Partly, this is on purpose. I keep thinking that if I avoid it, it will all just go away. I hate shopping during the other 11 months of the year, but in my mind, the Tenth Circle of Hell must look something like The Maine Mall between Thanksgiving and January 1st.
This is the time of year when all our talk of “peace on Earth” flies right out the window, in the face of cold, hard, American consumerism. Gotta get those gifts bought, wrapped, and under the tree by the deadline. Santa’s own elves can’t possibly face the same kind of stress we put on ourselves to deliver, every Christmas Morning.
In the midst of all this angst, I am celebrating Advent for the first time. It’s a season I never paid attention to before. I always thought it was a Catholic thing. I’d filed it away in my mind with words like “Michaelmas” and “St. Stephen’s Day,” and “penance.”
But last year, my publisher sent me a book of Advent readings as a Christmas gift, so I thought, “Okay, that could be kind of an out-of-the-box experience. Let’s do it!”
And Advent has absolutely blown me away.
It helps that the bottom has actually fallen out of my world this month. In my immediate family, I mean. In the last 3 weeks, our world has been flattened. You cannot imagine what life around here has been like. And through this long, painful period, I have been surprised to discover just who does and doesn’t seem to care. Which Best Friends don’t even ask. Who doesn’t check up. Yet others, whom I hardly know, are right there alongside me. It’s puzzling. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, this thing about who’s there and who’s not, in your world, on the days and weeks and months—and maybe years—when the bottom falls out.
Yet…I’m learning that it’s a grace to not have your usual support systems shoring you up. It leaves you all kinds of alone and naked with just…God. It makes Advent come to life. Advent: that original season of great expectation, when the whole world was lying near-dead, and abandoned-feeling, and in a huge, cold, and muddy ball of mess. Hopeless.
And after a long, long time of this, there was a group of night shift workers, tending sheep on a hillside, on the outskirts of a no-name little town. Since I worked night shifts for so many years, I have a special love for this part of the story: that the night shift was the first to hear the news. Suddenly, on a night that was just like the other 364 before it, the black air split open with light, and all these improbable creatures—more improbable even than Bruno Mars’ backup singers—burst out of the sky and began to cry out, “Glory to God! Peace—Finally, peace!” These angels (which is what they turned out to be,) gave these shepherds MapQuest directions. Being people who took care of livestock for a living, the shepherds, presumably, weren’t surprised by what they found when they got there.
A barn. And a teenaged girl, far from home, who’d just given birth there. What in the world did she wrap the baby in? A borrowed blanket? Strips of her own robe? Something she’d brought along on the journey, just in case? But we know she laid him in a feed trough, for a crib. Why not? Once, when my family was traveling, and my second child was a baby, we used the bottom drawer of a dresser, in a hotel room as a crib. When you’re desperate, you do what you have to do.
I have clung to Advent, this year, as a time to wait for hope when everything seems hopeless. That has been my particular grace, this month. The night is long, and cold, and most of the time, it feels like I’m doing not much else than tending a life full of needy, thankless sheep, who don't--to be honest--always smell all that great. But any second now, the skies are going to pour forth light. A Savior is going to appear.
And, as He always has throughout history, that Savior is going to come on His own terms, not mine. If I don’t recognize Him, then who’s to blame? He, who created the whole world and therefore gets to make all the rules? No. if I don’t see, it’s my own fault. I, who am not looking for the right things. It’s I, who arrive with expectations: looking for the lottery ticket, or chemical, or pop-psychologist who can wipe all the sadness, failure, and disappointment from my life. I, who cannot see an illegitimate child—what the generation before us called a bastard—lying in a chaff-dusted feed trough, as the fulfillment of any kind of promise. How can this—how can what You give me--possibly be enough, God?
But at the end of the story, He turns out to be so much more than enough. It just doesn’t look like we thought it would.
Advent is a season of expectant waiting. If there’s one sure thing about waiting, it’s this: you can’t circumvent it. You have to just get through it. And when Christmas Day arrives, and that waiting, hopeless part can finally exhale in relief and say, We’re saved, at last, from hopelessness, and disaster, and our small dreams for ourselves, then enjoy that day. Live in it fully. Remember what you were waiting for all that time, and what you’ve finally been rescued from.
I’m still waiting, but the there’s only a week left. The sky is beginning to lighten.