What was I waiting for?
It’s the new year but my mind is still on Advent. Recently, I heard about a church in our area where the pastor deliberately avoided singing Christmas carols in December. Maybe he thought that prolonged gazing at the baby Jesus in the manger would distract his flock from the reason for his birth, their sin, and his destiny, the cross. Members grumbled behind his back; they wanted to sing the old favourites! Not that long ago, we didn’t celebrate Advent in our church, either. No specific liturgy, no Advent candles, and certainly no Christmas tree or decorations. What is Advent really? I wondered. Extraneous liturgical ornamentation? Syncretism sneaking in the back door as we seek to meld other traditions into our Reformed heritage? Or worse, collusion with the marketplace, extending the season, piously wrapping up Christmas in a pretty package?
Traditionally, Advent is the time of waiting, waiting for the arrival of the Infant King, waiting for him to bring those gifts of hope, peace, joy, and love for which we light a candle the four Sundays before Christmas.
Well, waiting certainly resonates with me. I’m 55 and I think I’ve spent my whole life waiting. Waiting for things to be resolved, to be fixed, to be perfect, so I can finally be free of worry and be happy. Waiting for hope, peace, joy, and love to win out over doubt, conflict, heartache, and sorrow.
As I teenager, I waited impatiently to get older. I wanted independence. How could I be happy when I wasn’t allowed to date whom I pleased or stay out as long as I wanted? My parents, as parents do, tried to protect me from my own headstrong impulsiveness. Not surprisingly, arguments and conflict ensued. I even left home for a while because I couldn’t wait. (See Prodigal Daughter) My teen years were not really a happy time.
In my twenties I was waiting for my marriage to improve. My teaching career brought fulfilment, but matrimonial bliss was elusive. It was a decade of questioning my choice and peering over the precipice. Would things ever get better?
Entering my thirties, I was still married, with three children to boot. Then my dad was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma and was ill for the next ten years. Another decade of anxiety. More waiting… for the diagnosis, for test results, for the pain meds to kick in, for the finances to be sorted out, and, in the end, even for death as Dad lay in a coma for three days. It was an all-consuming fight against cancer. I was spent when it was over, and I was still waiting. Waiting for that perfect time when all of my loved ones would be healthy, whole, secure, spiritually mature, financially stable, and I could rest.
You guessed it. My forties did not deliver. I had teenagers now. It was payback time and they did all that I did to my parents and then some. My mother-in-law passed away. And my father-in-law. My brother-in-law. My sister went through a gut-wrenching divorce. Other stuff happened. Good things, too, but never a time when anxiety didn’t gnaw away at me.
So here I am in my mid-fifties, still waiting. At this stage in life I’m retired, and new worries lurk just around the corner. My husband has upcoming doctor’s appointments, I see my mom aging, and I’m dealing with all the emotions that crowd an empty nest. It’s dawning on me that the perfect coalescence of hope, peace, joy, and love that I am waiting for in my life is never going to happen. It’s not what the Infant King intended to bring me, anyway.
Turns out that Advent is not about waiting after all. John the Baptist, that Biblical personification of Advent, preached about preparing the way and about repentance. He preached about changing old attitudes and habits. He advised the man with two tunics to share with the person who had none, the tax collector to collect only what was due, the soldier to be content with his pay and not to extort money or accuse people falsely. Like his predecessor Isaiah who urged, “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord rises upon you,” John preached about being a witness to the coming light.
I hear him preaching to me. “Get off your duff, already. Get ready to receive Christ. Change your sackcloth for something a little brighter, for heaven’s sake. Repent, change your sinful habits, be a witness to the coming glory. Not sure how to do that? Here’s a start: be content with what you have, share if you have extra, be honest.”
John reminds me that Advent is but prologue to what really matters – that Jesus has come. He’s here. The Word Made Flesh. He is himself the Incarnation of the gifts I’ve been waiting for. He reaches out his little nail-destined hand from the manger to touch me and anoint me to go and do the same. Enflesh my words with hope. Offer peace to the embattled. Drink from the cup of joy and pass it on. Embody love in my actions. The gifts I’ve been waiting to receive are, in fact, the gifts I am meant to give. There is nothing passive about Advent. I have to get off my duff, shine, and be a voice calling out in the desert, even, at times, in the dry places of my own life: “Alleluia, he is coming! Alleluia, he is here!”
I went for a walk a couple of days before Christmas. The sky was grey, heavy with snow. I was still thinking about Advent, my brain charged up with the idea about “not waiting” any longer for hope, peace, joy, and love. Those gifts are already mine in Christ. Is it possible to believe that more intentionally…minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day? Could I internalize that hope, peace, joy, and love as a rock-solid foundation for the years ahead, good or bad?
My artist friend, Hank Jagt, has a painting in oil on masonite called Bridge in Kent County. I would buy it in a heartbeat if I could. Two roads, bordered by creeks, cross at a bridge. The roads roll on into the distance. It’s a country scene, realistically portrayed with a naturalist’s eye for the detailed beauty of the ordinary, but what I see, all the more incredibly because Hank tells me that this was not his intent, is a huge cross imprinted on the whole landscape. Not a cross sentimentally superimposed on some romanticized pastoral illustration, but a cross branded on the very land itself, carved out of real water, crunchy gravel, and rural roads, a cross that stretches beyond what the eye can see. The painting is a metaphor of the faith I want to carry me into the future, the sacrifice of Jesus sculpted in relief on me, his living stone.
The wind was fresh and my cheeks and lips tingled as I walked down Broadway Street, deep in thought. I was thankful for my Columbia coat and Hot Paws mittens. I was thankful for my health and for the freedom I have, being retired, to indulge in a walk through town in the middle of the day. My ‘special needs’ buddy Ron passed me, heading in the opposite direction. I meet up with Ron just about every time I go for a walk. He attends the Friendship Program at our church. I smiled at him and said hello like I always do. He nodded as he shuffled by me, embarrassed, but pleased to be acknowledged.
I noticed flashing lights up ahead. A RIDE program was in effect and the officers were checking cars for impaired drivers. I felt grateful to live in a country with dependable law enforcement and good government. We complain, of course, but we live in one of the safest nations on earth. I said a little prayer for the disadvantaged nations, mired in warfare and poverty, and I said another little prayer for the oppressed, who can’t trust their own police or government.
Then I had a little visit with Tolkien. Not literally, of course, but I can’t help but smile and think of him every time I pass two trees with “faces,” those plastic decorations that people like to put on trees at Hallowe’en. My Entish friends remind me of all the time I have spent in Middle Earth and the endless pleasure I get from books in general. On this particular day, thinking about Advent, I recalled one of my favourite Tolkien quotes about joy. I looked it up when I got home: “Fairytale does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of the deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat … giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy. Joy, beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” Tolkien’s words made me ponder the Second Coming. Doubt, conflict, heartache, and sorrow will not win. Someday they will be defeated by Joy. Advent is not just a Christmas word, I realized. We live in Advent every day until that last day when our Joy will return in triumph.
A few more steps and I reached the house with the best landscaping in town. I know the owner. She works at the LCBO. We have friendly little garden chats whenever I stop in to pick up a bottle of Baileys. In the summer, the plumes of her Japanese silver grass tower ten feet in the air. In the fall, a fiery maple burns orange in the centre of her yard, reminding me of Moses’s encounter with God. On this winter day, the grasses and cedars and shrubs, lightly dusted with snow, emphasized the architecture and textural drama of the garden.
Throughout the Christmas season the highlight of my route is a well-known Victorian home on the main street. I paused to take a picture. Every year it is garishly decorated in a random way that never fails to amuse me. There’s a Santa by the front door, guarded by two regal bronze lions. There’s a Narnian lamp-post and an Italianate fountain with a concrete bench. In the middle of this ragtag conglomeration is a life-sized Nativity scene cut out of plywood and propped up against the wall. Two-dimensional Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus in a manger look decidedly cartoonish, but you can’t ignore them!
This comic scene delights me because it encompasses a certain truth about the way Christians try to share the Christmas story. We don’t always “go and tell” our miraculous glad tidings with sensitivity or loveliness. We clutter up the landscape of our lives, haphazardly stuffing the good news in there right beside the ugly and the petty. Most of the time we’re like those dirty shepherds with a glorious story few will believe because of their disrepute. Thankfully, despite us, the divinely propelled good news hurls itself through history anyway.
On the way home, a strong line of demarcation split the sky. Above the charcoal-coloured clouds was a bright blue canopy, streaked with a few wisps of filmy white. I turned into my own street and saw a shiny circle on the horizon across the cornfields. It was just the sun’s rays above the sombre clouds in the distance, glinting off the dome of a silo, but my imagination slipped its traces. Here was my very own eastern star illuminating the terrain: This is the place. Look around. Christ is here. He’s here!
I’d been on a journey, of sorts, and hope, peace, joy, and love were all there on the road with me. Now I have only to be wise enough to see it, pack it in my camel bag, and take it with me into the new year.