Can you remember what it was like to wait when you were a child? The period of time from one Christmas to the next was an eternity. I remember waking up the morning after Christmas feeling somewhat depressed that a WHOLE YEAR had to go by before we could enjoy the season once again. By July, one could look back and realize that time was moving in the right direction. After all, seven months had passed. Only 5 more to go until Christmas – that special day when we saw family, ate amazing food, had an endless array of cookies and opened gifts hoping to fulfill our deepest expectations.
The thing is, there were actually other markers along the way. A birthday; another year of school finished and the beginning of a new grade level; puppies being born; a move to a new city; celebrations with family for a birth, an anniversary or maybe a death; travels; braces on, braces off; and the list goes on. In spite of anticipation for certain events in the future, the space between then and now is where life actually happens. Each moment is full of opportunity, experience and the potential for learned wisdom. The irony is the period of waiting for that special occasion is the actual reality while the anticipated event can be a distraction from those things that tumble and form us into the self we are or the self we are to become.
Tradition tells us Advent is a period of waiting and preparation. If you really think about it, preparation for an event should be proportional to what we are waiting for. When we wait the long nine months for a baby to be born, we prepare a place for that child in our homes. A room gets painted, a crib is purchased, a closet or dresser is cleared out to make room for diapers, blankets and those precious little clothes we blissfully purchase with abandon. Showers offer us time to celebrate with friends and family as they share gifts with us intended to welcome the little one into our home. Step by step we prepare so that we can be somewhat ready to take on the role of parenting when the baby finally arrives.
Then there is the preparation we find ourselves in before Christmas…Oh my… In four short weeks we decorate, shop, wrap, bake, cook, clean, plan parties, attend parties, smile, wonder why we are so exhausted, smile some more and so it goes. Consumer marketing has taught us that we are preparing for the ultimate day complete with perfectly and thoughtfully selected and impeccably wrapped gifts for our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and general acquaintances. Homes are decorated beyond belief. The single Christmas tree of the past is no longer enough. Each room takes on the aura of a winter wonderland complete with exquisite mantel displays, artfully decorated trees, seasonal centerpieces, dishes and linens while holiday vignettes procure every imaginable surface. However, it did occur to me one Christmas season that if I decorated all of our tables, shelves and flat surfaces with runners, florals and Christmas figurines, there would be nowhere for dust to accumulate thus limiting the amount of cleaning I would have to do throughout the season. That knowledge carried me through the hours of arranging and rearranging necessary to create the seasonal images I had grown to believe were necessary. Additionally, one must design and send Christmas cards imprinted with a breathtaking family portrait, stuffed with the obligatory letter to highlight how special our year was and properly personalized with calligraphy lettered salutations and envelopes. The final and most spectacular event is the meal itself. But wait! The Christmas meal is no longer enough. Calorie laden feasts are presented on Christmas Eve, Christmas brunch and Christmas dinner. I’m overwhelmed just writing about it. The thought of actually completing all of the preparations puts me in a catatonic state. I’m not convinced this is the preparation tradition intended for us.
It is wise to re-think what we are waiting for during Advent. If we are awaiting the perfect Christmas events, then our preparations will look like the scenario depicted in the previous paragraph. But, is that truly what we are waiting for? Our ancient relatives longed for the Messiah. As they waited, they got up every day; went to work; ate regular meals; shared seasonal celebrations with their families, friends and neighbors; cried; laughed; mourned; and experienced the best and the worst of life. They waited for that unexpected day when a child was born in the City of Bethlehem and watched as the child grew into a man of great wisdom and character – a man who taught them about love, acceptance and compassion and what it looked like to live as God intended for humanity to live. In like fashion, we now wait for that perfect experience that will occur when He comes again to lead with mercy and justice. The odd thing is, our wait is no different than that of our ancestors. Truly, we should wait seeped in the ways of The One for whom we wait, recognizing He walks with us every moment of every day prompting us to share His ways with those who are diminished by society, finances or health. His ways never involved a bullhorn on a street corner complete with a sermonette about the awful things that will happen if you don’t do what the speaker says you need to do. His caring came in the form of a gentle touch, a shared meal, a simple acceptance of where a person stood in life and a compassionate nudge toward better choices.
Truth be told, I am currently surrounded by plastic crates filled with seasonal decorations to adorn our home as a means to announce to all who come here that we are waiting – and ready – for Christmas. I will bake decadent treats and plan a fabulous meal…or two…or three. I have begun the arduous task of finding wonderful gifts for family and friends. I have a ‘station’ set up with gift-wrap, tape, scissors and fabulous ribbons. I am preparing for the kind of Christmas made popular by the influence of retailers and the media. Yet, beneath it all I am preparing for the real Christmas. I’ll remember those who need a meal to get through a rough time; I’ll focus on the goodness of those whom I am seeking the perfect gift for; and I’ll take time to walk and meditate on the beauty of God in this world. In my weakest, nastiest, most stressed and anxious moments, I’ll try to remember that the memories of this day are not in the gifts, the decorations, or the meals. The true memories are in the moments when people come together with love and compassion to celebrate and share the love that God modeled for us on that starry night long ago.
Yes, the focus of our preparation must be consistent with what we are waiting for. How will you wait?