The Saturday after Thanksgiving, we clear the southwest corner of our living room. The girls troop up and down the stairs with open shoeboxes of dollhouse furniture and toy cars, finding them new winter homes, and I roll the vacuum out of its hiding place. Only the floor lamp is left on the square of carpet, a simple last task. But as I grasp the slender stem to move it four feet away, I let out a sudden laugh of surprise.
“What is it?” Y asks, looking up from the kitchen sink.
“I know where this goes.” I twinkle a glance at him, and he understands my delight, I think: Advent is nearly upon us, and we’ve lived in this house long enough that some traditions are beginning to take root. Even the lamp has its own place for Christmas.
Half an hour later, a golden winter sun showers warmth down on our heads as the four of us wind through rows of feathery fir and pine trees. Douglas, Balsam, White Pine, Canaan, each one as kingly as the next — but every year I hear my mother’s voice, far back from my North Carolina girlhood, saying that nothing can beat a Fraser fir for its sturdy beauty and fragrance. This year, in honor of her impending visit and my Blue Ridge roots, we search out and select a Fraser. A “tall and narrow” one, to Y’s satisfaction.
“We’ve had a lot of folks looking for that today,” the attendant grins.
In the evening I wrap my fingers around a steaming mug of spiced cranberry tea and mull over plans for this Advent season. Every year is a little different for the children. This time Little Jo will understand the passing dates better, I think, by watching a simple Mary and Joseph ornament progress to the 25th — and to Bethlehem — on a calendar grid. Y and I will also give the girls opportunities to earn a few dollars for a Shepherd’s Pouch, which is a tradition of the Piper family. (This will be especially thrilling for Lucy, whose chief source of income is losing her teeth.) After we count up their earnings, we’ll give them some time to pore over gift catalogs from nonprofit and relief organizations to choose gifts to leave beside the manger on Christmas Eve. As they sleep, we’ll replace the gifts with small treats.
I haven’t thought out all the details yet, but however all of it turns out, the happiness of simply being able to make such plans brings a soft whisper of thanksgiving over my cuppa.
This year I thirst to join the anticipatory pace of Advent.
Advent is a hushed season that grants us permission to wait, to feel both the taut pain of expectation and the seismic approach of joy. I love to think of Simeon and Anna, so long in their patient watchfulness, finally beholding the face of Christ. What thoughts and inexpressible emotions rushed through their own hearts as they looked upon Him as a child? They saw the One of whom the angels had sung and the prophets had preached, and they knew the wonder and gladness of hope fulfilled, and fulfilled perfectly.
Through no merit of my own, I stand in the company of those who hold the Holy Spirit as a deposit of the full redemption to come. We are waiting for the most glorious of endings and beginnings, for the promised return of our Rescuer and King.
If I can spend this Advent taking in the meaning of the long-awaited Incarnation, of our need and His enfleshed reply, I wonder: how much joy will break with Christmas dawn as I see with fresh eyes the promises that are coming true right now?
For this reason, the beautiful tree in our living room stands bare for now, untrimmed these first two weeks of Advent.
Oh, no heavy-handed legalism holds us back. We’re pacing ourselves (and certain members among us are having loads of fun spritzing the tree with water in the meantime), taking the time to watch the unfolding of joy. We’ve begun telling the Jesse Tree stories from Creation onward that herald the coming of the Son of God, counting down to the jubilant and full twelve days of Christmas. (And goodness, there will be revelry then!)
“But is all this seeming pageantry worth it, after all?” one might ask. “Isn’t this the same old world in which you celebrate the same old event every year?”
My answer this year comes with an emphatic nod, and a quote that I rediscovered last week.
Yes, in many ways this is a tired old world, and we demonstrated it in our own house yesterday, whiplashed by the fraying edges of our patience and energy. I’ve issued numerous apologies of my own this weekend, and frankly don’t care to dig any deeper into the self-centered, ulterior motives that seem to multiply layer by layer out of my heart, like an ever-blooming, repulsive onion. We are human, and I can guarantee that on at least one evening of Advent, one of us will not feel like gathering at the table to read the Jesse Tree story.
As an idealist I’ve learned not to let the underside of life have the limelight (out of sheer necessity, or else I’ll brood over it at length), but we are a family of faults and weaknesses too — of deep sighs, slammed doors, set jaws, inadequate courage, disordered priorities, and ongoing private struggles. Pageantry? Come right “backstage”; one minute in my thought-chambers alone will cure you. We who are about to celebrate Christmas salute you with the weight of sinfulness on our heads (and terrible turns of phrase to boot).
But now for the quote.
In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, a little wayfaring band has come upon the ruined statue of a king, now a melancholy echo of its former glory.
The years had gnawed it, and violent hands had maimed it. Its head was gone, and in its place was set in mockery a round rough-hewn stone, rudely painted by savage hands in the likeness of a grinning face with one large eye in the midst of its forehead. Upon its knees and mighty chair, and all about the pedestal, were idle scrawls mixed with the foul symbols that the maggot-folk of Mordor used.
Suddenly, caught by the level beams, Frodo saw the old king’s head: it was lying rolled away by the roadside. ‘Look, Sam!’ he cried, startled into speech. ‘Look! The king has got a crown again!’
The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed.
‘They cannot conquer for ever!’ said Frodo.
My heart leapt when I read that excerpt the other day. The glory of Christ in this house, in this flawed soul and body, isn’t what it should be; its representation is pocked and dented all over, as distorted as a hallway lined with funhouse mirrors.
But — it’s there.
This Christmas, this feast day of His birth, is different from the last. It marks one more year of His faithfulness gone by, and one year closer to the time when His dwelling with us will no longer be a distant memory of man. The greater feast is coming. Each Christmas that precedes it is a reminder that the frailties and wounds we bear cannot win.
In the weeks to come, therefore, you’ll find us putting up the garlands and red velvet bows again. We’ll troop outside once more into the winter chill to bid our neighbors a happy Christmas. With these ears that hear of “wars and rumors of wars” daily we’ll listen for the introductory measures of soft and rousing carols; with these hands we’ll weave lights like small white stars through crossed fir branches, remembering another tall and narrow tree that ushered in life everlasting.
Here by the manger, now long empty and yet again full with remembrance, we will lay both our best offerings — and our most oppressive burdens.
Those burdens cannot conquer for ever, friends!
The King has got His crown.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
– Isaiah 9:6-7, ESV