There is Advent on this blog. And there is Advent in my home.
Advent on the blog is, I like to think, serene. Advent at home? Less so.
Here is a confession: I have everything it takes to be a good mother. Unfortunately, those qualities consistently abandon me during the tired edges of the day. Which means I only have what it takes when ¾ of my children are at school, and the last little quarter is asleep in her crib.
Translation: I do not have what it takes.
So far, our family Advent observance has been … impressive. At least, I’ve been impressed. Most nights we have sat down together to light candles and read a devotion. I can’t take the credit. The whole thing is due entirely to the friend (angel, really) who gave us a complete Jesse Tree collection the first Sunday of Advent. We had everything handed to us: beautifully crafted ornaments for each day, a printout of Ann Voskamp’s family devotional (tied up in green silk ribbon), even a large glass vase. We supplied a bare branch from our yard, and we were in business.
But the wait for Christmas is long and heavy, and our observance has cracked a bit around the edges. Well, worse than that, really. I may have exploded one recent evening after yet another argument over who would hang the ornament. I may have called the whole thing off and sent them to bed. One of them crying those enormous, guilt-inducing crocodile tears.
And yet, Monday night somehow found us gathered, again, around our Jesse tree. I wasn’t optimistic. I was tired. When I glimpsed the evening’s reading – 2 ½ pages from the book of I Kings?! From an obscure story about idol worship?! – I panicked.
I was this close to shutting the book up again and announcing a change of plans. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read the whole thing while children fought and pestered me with questions like Who is Baal? What is a prophet? They did what to the animals??
But a fight over who was or was not touching someone’s favorite ornament on the tree threatened to boil over so I did the only thing I could.
I started reading.
Do you know the story?
There is a showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Baal’s followers prepare an altar and a sacrifice. Then they spend hours calling on their god to set the thing on fire. They shout. They dance. They prophesy franticly. They even slash themselves until the blood flows.
Here is the eloquence of Scripture: “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”
At this point in the reading, I had the full attention of my children. They sat mesmerized. It was as if we could see that frantic, bloody dancing. It was as if we could hear the deafening silence of heaven.
I kept reading.
Elijah sets up the stones and the wood for his own altar. He douses it in water. And more water. There is so much water, and the impossibility is doubled. Tripled.
Elijah prays: “Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
We sat – each of us – with eyes large and breath caught – until: the God of Fire came.
He heard. He came. And there was fire.
“The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!”
Making space for God’s presence in my home feels about as back-breaking as hauling stones. My husband and I stack those stones while little people bicker around our ankles. Too often, their bickering is contagious.
I lose my temper. I can’t take even one more thing. Not one more mess. Not one more argument. Until, I have filled our home, our altar of stones, with so much water. An impossible flood of water.
Making space for God’s presence in my home is also a free gift. It is a beautiful and complete family advent collection handed to me by a friend.
It asks nothing of me. Requires nothing of me.
It is an impossible mess, and it is grace, and my children and I have seen fire.
Because God came.
Because God always will come.
I’ve told you this before. How this is my year of deja-vu.
I felt it again when I pushed those red snowboots onto her tiny feet. The boots look barely worn, but I know they are nearly a decade old. I remember how my oldest, my other daughter, wore them on Chicago’s snowy sidewalks.
Jonathan and I have goofy grins as we watch our baby tumble in snow for the first time. We’ve worn these smiles before. I know we have. Strangely, they feel brand new.
I thought it would be different this time. This fourth baby. This second daughter. And it is.
But not in the way I thought. I assumed it would be recognizable. Known. Like a comfortable coat we’ve worn before. Instead, it feels surprising. There is the shock of newness. We’ve lived it before, but this is no second-hand delight.
It is as if an echo had something new to say, something new to reveal, with each repetition.
At Advent, I am accustomed to seeing the baby in the crèche as the already-was. The one who came but not the one I am waiting for. I look toward King Jesus and wonder how long, but what if that baby is new every year?
I’ve heard this before. How we must make room in our hearts, in our communities, for him to be born again. I always thought it sentimental.
I’m realizing today that doesn’t make it untrue.
What if he could be born again and again to us, shocking and miraculous every time?
What if Christmas could bring us the yearly return of a joy that is always new?
Time is undone, and the light will swiftly come.
Can you feel it? Can you begin to see it?
We are still waiting, still it is dark night, and yet … joy. We know the light is near because there is joy.
“Let us View With Joy and Mirth”
Let us view with joy and mirth
All the clocks upon the earth
Holding time with busy tocking
Ticking booming clanging clocking
Through the stars and winds and tides.
Who can tell where time abides?
Foolish clocks, all time was broken
When that first great Word was spoken.
Cease we now this silly fleeing
From earth’s time, for time’s a being
Bows before him
Who upon the throne is seated.
Time, defeated, wins, is greeted.
Clocks know not time’s loving wonder
Day above as night swings under,
Turning always to the son,
Time’s begun, is done, does run
Of the morning
Time, mass, space, a mystery
Of eternal trinity.
Time needs make no poor apology
For bursting forth from man’s chronology
Laughs in glee as human hours
Dance before the heavenly powers.
Because the Son
Swiftly calls the coming light
That will end the far-spent night.
– Madeleine L’Engle, from The Irrational Season
We have turned a corner. Can you feel it?
The word for this third week of Advent is Rejoice. It is a word associated most closely with Mary.
Here is a prayer for this, the third Sunday of Advent.
“Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
– from The Book of Common Prayer
It is at about this point in the season when I despair of reading every one of the books in our Advent / Christmas / Winter collection.
But then I remember – Christmas lasts 12 days! Of course, we’ll get to them. We only need a few more snow days to help us along.
Here are three more of my favorite books for the time of year.
Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season (The Crosswicks Journal, Book 3) makes excellent reading any time of year, but it is especially nice to pick up at Advent time. L’Engle’s meditation on the seasons of faith and life follows the traditional calendar of the Christian church, beginning with Advent.
There are so many things I could say about L’Engle’s work, I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps my favorite thing is L’Engle’s commitment to asking difficult questions. What I discover in her books – and in the Crosswicks journals, in particular – is that unknowing is not a scary place to be. In fact, L’Engle shows us that we can sometimes experience God’s presence in more beautiful and more comforting ways when we take the time to sit with the questions we do not have answers for.
Also, L’Engle’s family home, Crosswicks, has been described as a “farmhouse of charming confusion,” which pretty much sums up the thing I most hope to attain in life.
Hisako Aoki’s Santa’s Favorite Story: Santa Tells the Story of the First Christmas (with illustrations by Ivan Gantschev) is new to me this year, passed on by a kindred spirit.
This is a beautiful little book in its own right, but it is also a book that fills a very big need. Whether or not yours is a Santa-believing family, children can use our help integrating Santa (who is unavoidable this time of year) and the babe in the manger. Simply and sweetly (but not too sweetly) this book does exactly that.
Santa is still Santa (he works hard to share gifts with everyone, particularly, in this book, small forest animals), but he knows Christmas is not all about presents. In Santa’s words,
“Love was the gift God gave to us on the first Christmas, and it still is, you know.”
I appreciate that this book does not give us another storyline about Santa. It simply uses Santa, a character every child knows, to speak the most important story – the life-changing true story – of the first Christmas.
Lastly, we always make time for at least a few readings of Holly Hobbie’s Let It Snow (Toot & Puddle). If you have not already made the acquaintance of these piglet friends, well then, I feel privileged to point you in their direction. These are books about the pleasures of friendship, the seasons, and the varied joys of far-flung travel and a quiet life lived close to home. Let it Snow offers more of this with the added drama of choosing just the right gift and wondering when it might snow. If I weren’t reading these books with wiggly children, I would feel inclined to pour a cup of tea before beginning each one.
Let me be explicit: Toot and Puddle are not just for kids!
I’ll be sharing a few more seasonal books next Saturday, but I’d love to know … what are you reading?