Blessed be these last days of Advent.
Per custom, we brought home our Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving this year. (“Our” tree farm, as we learned early on, tends to run out of inventory within a matter of days!) We left the house still wearing the scent of spiced pumpkin and sweet roasted delicata to pick out our Fraser fir.
Winding through the familiar evergreen rows this time, I saw it seconds before Y: a demure and slender little fir that ceded no dignity to its portlier neighbors. It was a foot or two shorter than our previous trees, but what it lacked in stature, it made up amply in graceful form.
Y agreed heartily, and I couldn’t help smiling at his enthusiasm to scoop up this fir — preferably before visions of towering Tannenbaums began to dance in his wife’s head. We made our way to the counter as the winter wind picked up, and herded the girls and their cups of cocoa, along with my visiting brother and sister-in-law, into the shelter of the small building.
“It’s not as cold as the first year we came,” I remarked. “Remember Lucy in her little bear bunting?” We had crunched through the snow carrying our well-wrapped infant, who — owing to the ears on her hood and the ivory fleece all over — had looked like nothing so much as a plush polar cub with a wee human face.
Y grinned at the memory. “I do remember.”
“Anyway, I think this is the fastest tree trip we’ve ever made.”
We ushered our arboreal guest into the living room, placed it in its stand, and gave it its first helping of tree-tea. Once this initiation was complete, however, we left it alone.
Beautiful golden-hued photos of holly- and pine-laced festivities began to appear online that very weekend. Though our family has been growing into the practice of waiting through Advent, as a dear friend once gently suggested (without a single hint of legalistic ascetism) to her church here, I wondered if this year we shouldn’t begin the celebration early after all.
Y stacked the Christmas bins on the stair landing. I cleared the dining room shelves of their simple Autumn finery, and stood considering them for a moment.
And in a swift moment of resolution — or perhaps just plain tiredness — I left them bare.
All that remained were the wooden candlesticks, Y’s metal-and-wood anniversary gift, and two little faux potted plants, spaced oddly apart from each other.
But in the mornings that followed, something about that unpolished sight was both a relief and a comfort to me. The emptiness acknowledged something of my own breathlessness. At the end of a year of scrambling repeatedly to meet unforeseen and often harrowing circumstances, it was a visual intake of breath before the grand carol of the Incarnation.
Instead of hanging the garlands, I found myself searching for songs that upheld the same kind of pause. And for the first time, we made an Advent wreath: Y crafted rudimentary candle stands with an augur and four chunks of wood, and I fashioned a circle of greens from the trimmed boughs of our tree. Even this didn’t come together in time for the first Sunday. Someday I’ll look back and ask Y, “Remember our first Advent wreath?” — and together we’ll remember how our “catching up” pace of life led us to light the flame of Hope with only two candles and four blocks of scrap wood hastily arranged in a round on the table.
But by the second Sunday evening, I had the wreath in place. Lucy and Little Jo watched closely as I touched the flickering fire to the red tapers, and a hush descended on our table as the songs of waiting bloomed softly from the kitchen. I rested my head on Y’s shoulder. Somewhere between the Chamber Choir of Europe’s “O Magnum Mysterium” and Fernando Ortega’s “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” the reality and the sense of Advent came home to me.
Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!
This is He whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord,
Evermore and evermore!
“Of the Father’s love begotten.” At once, the clear notes from the instrumental melody brought me back to the truth that is unfailingly solid for any fearful or weary soul seeking refuge: out of love the Father sent, and out of love the Son came. They knew the Incarnation would come to pass before Gabriel ever appeared to Mary and Zechariah — before the centuries of silence — before Isaiah ever penned the words “For to us a child is born” — before Adam and Eve took their first step out of Eden — before they were commanded not to eat from the tree. Before the very foundation of the world. The love of God is a taproot that extends back through every single generation of man, and it runs just as strongly through every day of mine.
If I’ve learned nothing else this year, I know that relying on the continuing, answering, minute-by-minute presence of my living God will never be a misplaced trust. And there is no answer so great as the one that came to lock eyes with and heal our brokenness: the true light Himself. This central answer is the basis for all the littler answers I seek from day to day, and it is what grants me the right to request them at all.
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…” (Jn. 1:12, ESV)
The past week has worn us somewhat thin; the girls came down with a cold, and a caregiving emergency for Y’s father required our full attention for several days. We’ve all lost sleep. But the kindled spark of peace, and the triple-corded wick of love at the core of it, is alive and well.
Three days ago, I decided it was high time to try a new gingerbread cookie recipe. Lucy and Little Jo ran to the kitchen to pick out their favorite cookie cutters. Much to our delight, the chilled dough rolled out smoothly, and the girls cut out angels, snowmen, trees, and stars, giggling whenever the dough shapes refused to drop out of the cutters. On Monday morning we had the cookies with tea while we read the prophecy of Isaiah under a berry-crowned chandelier.
In the evenings we’ve been reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together. I can scarcely describe my own delight over walking Little Jo into Narnia for the first time; her incredulous laugh upon realizing that Lucy had pushed past the fur coats and entered a snow-covered forest was better than a standing ovation for C.S. Lewis. She was gifted her own copy of the Chronicles by her preschool, and now she follows along as I read, peeking at me over the top edge of the page when she detects peril.
Meanwhile, I’ve been encountering a bit of wonder myself.
Have I ever really known — ever truly lived the experience — that reading the Chronicles of Narnia to a child, and baking orange cardamom biscotti, and outfitting the house for “jollification for weeks on end” can be individual acts of worship? The maxims and cautionary articles so often run the other way: we need to guard against excess leading to exhaustion, we tell each other — against becoming so wrapped up in particulars that we lose our focus on the holiday.
This year, however, it’s proving to be far a greater discipline for me to celebrate than to sit still.
The drying of orange slices to use as ornaments, the tying of ribbons, the writing of cards: each step requires determination. And each one has been an act of conscious blessing and purpose, like the plowing of a path through hard-packed snow, making way for the feast to come. Every task rings with a thank you — thank you — thank You for coming. In short, perhaps this is celebration as it always should be.
This Christmas, for me, isn’t so much the raising of a desperate flag as the firm planting of one, with both of my feet squarely on frozen ground. I’m not “going to the trouble” of it all merely for the children, or committing a noble but ultimately futile act of rebellion. Yes, it may always be a challenge to celebrate in a broken world. But the brokenness will not endure forever, and it would be a shame to act as though it can.
We are therefore preparing a way for joy in these last days of Advent, right in the face of uncertainty and weariness; in this house and season we’ll celebrate Christmas with a will, in all the ways we know how. Every chapter of my life has been an active display of the mercies of God, of being loved through and through; could there be a more natural response than intentional rejoicing?
Whatever day comes to usher me down to the grave, may it find me singing as gladly as I will on the day that I come out of it again.
For “this is He whom… voices of prophets / Promised in their faithful word,” and He is worthy of every spoonful and scribble and song of praise.
Evermore and evermore.