As I flick on the switch, the tiny bulb meant to act as the star casts a warm glow over the scene below. “You have a lot of nativity sets, Mom,” my son comments after he helps set up the wooden, ceramic, hand-carved, and clay sets next to the snow globe manger scene and the stitched Kantha magi picture. I stopped counting how many baby Jesus figures adorn our living room come Advent-time every year. They have captivated me since I was a little girl, even before I knew who this baby in the creche even was. I just knew there was something strange and beautiful about this helpless babe that people revered.
What was attractive about a wriggling bundle of flesh? What power was there in this helplessness? It’s a mystery I still wrestle to answer every year as I gaze upon these nativity sets I have collected from around the world.
In the church, most of the year we contemplate the cross, what we more often see as the symbol of our redemption. But I find myself drawn more to the cradle than to the cross. We view the coming of the Messiah as a culmination of our salvation, but I think it’s just the beginning. The enigma of the life we live in and through the fully God, fully human Savior is something we work out with fear and trembling our whole lives.
The week before we unboxed our mangers, I sat at the computer for hours pondering all I had learned in the last three months during my final trimester of studies for my master’s degree in Practical Theology. We were tasked with writing a statement of faith, detailing what we believed about important doctrines like the nature of God, creation, and our eternal destinies. One question I spent more time on others is what the Imago Dei really means, what it says about us that we were created in the image and likeness of God.
Is it something about our physical bodies? Our capacity to reason? Our freedom to choose or to love? Our eternal nature? I read arguments from theologians and early church fathers arguing for each of these.
But the words I kept coming back to were ones I had heard months before when I spent a day hiking and praying at the Ignatius House in Atlanta. A quiet Jesuit priest spoke to a handful of us retreatants throughout the day about the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
What stuck with me from that day is he didn’t speak about becoming more spiritual through these contemplative exercises but becoming more human. “We become human on our journey through this life and so become what God is like,” he said. It felt scandalous, blasphemous. I grew up hearing that our humanity was nothing more than fallen and sinful from birth, taught we should try to be more like God, less like us. Instead, he was telling us to live more fully into who God created us to be.
On that day the announcement to Jerusalem will be,
“Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid!
For the Lord your God is living among you.
He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs."
The waiting for my first child seemed to stretch on forever as it was a week past my due date before labor pains began. After laboring all day, I sat in the hospital expecting to be told she would come soon only to be told I needed to wait and walk some more. Each step felt like it made the pain start anew and the end felt nowhere in sight. Even two hours into pushing, my little diva still took her precious time as we found out she was face up, having a hard time coming into the world.
Struggle and joy are never so intertwined as in those moments of labor, when you speak those words and mean them - "I can't do this anymore!" You truly feel like there is not another ounce of strength in you, even though you know the reward is near.
I cried those words and wanted to give up, even after nine months of waiting. Even after hours of labor and pushing. One more anguished push and I couldn't even understand what was happening when this squirming little body was placed on top of mine. I didn't even realize she had arrived until my mouth was gaping open, tears streaming down my face as I held her to my body. Outside my body. In my arms. How did this happen?
There would be time for celebrating, for announcements and laughter, for photos. Oh, so many photos.
But in those moments, there was nothing but me and her. All of my waiting and working had finally come to an end, even after I had stopped believing it was possible. There were only those dark eyes looking into mine, looking like mine. Nothing else mattered. My dream was living and breathing, in my arms.
I have always read the Old Testament prophecies about Christ from the perspective of one who knows they have been fulfilled, like the mother who already holds her newborn. I haven't really felt the waiting in the words, the pain and struggle the people of God must have felt as they waited for the One to come who would change their lives.
'The day will come', says the Lord 'when I will do for Israel and Judah all the good things I have promised them. In those days and at that time I will raise up a righteous descendant from King David’s line. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. In that day Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this will be its name: ‘The Lord Is Our Righteousness.’ - Jeremiah 33.14-15
When I found myself expecting my first child, I was twenty-seven years old but nothing made me feel more unprepared and like a child myself than knowing what lie ahead. No one stops to learn how to be a mother, to care for another human being and all that entails, until they themselves are preparing to have a child. And nothing makes you feel as utterly inadequate as knowing the responsibility that you now carry.
The two blue lines barely had time to appear on that little white stick before I started reading books about pregnancy, birth, and caring for a baby. I suddenly knew how much preparation was needed. I didn't only need a crib and a car seat, diapers and a thousand other gadgets and tools to take care of a child. I also needed the knowledge that mothers before me, doctors, and friends had to offer.
That firstborn of mine now stands next to me, hanging the sparkling silver angel that was her first ornament on the seventh Christmas tree of her little life. All the rush and hurry of this season is upon us again. I look into her sweet blue eyes that still see the magic of all the lights and songs. I want to create with her traditions that speak also of the expectation that should come with this season before us.
Advent, the season beginning four Sundays before Christmas, means "to come" in Latin and its essence, to me, is reminiscent of that very expectation that I felt as a mother-to-be.
Shouldn't it be so? Mary found herself still a child, unprepared and unexpecting when she carried both a great weight and the very One who frees us from every burden. Continue Reading
November blindsided me with its arrival this year. I know everyone says the years go by faster the older you get, but this year has rushed by with startling speed.
By the beginning of November I usually have the kids gather up some of the many branches that have fallen from the sturdy trees in our back yard. We string paper leaves from the branches placed in a vase and take stolen moments around the dinner table to jot down our thanks, to stop in all the hurry and be grateful.
The rain came in sheets this year. Busyness surrounded us, keeping us from our usual project as the month began. As the days passed and our little centerpiece wasn’t in place, I felt the chance to be intentional slipping away.
My heart skipped a beat when I realized a vacation planned in the middle of the month, along with a busy season at work and writing deadlines mean that Thanksgiving would come and go and then Advent would be upon us.
Advent. By definition this season is an expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Jesus. I close my eyes when I think of the word Advent and picture candles lit, ornaments hung, carols sung. I think of a peaceful expectancy, a stirring in your heart that says something wonderful is on the way.
I open my eyes and the image disappears, replaced by parties marked on calendars, shopping lists and presents to wrap. This season that leads up to the celebration of Jesus’ arrival on earth has become for me, as I suspect for most of us, anything but waiting...
This week I start my December focus on Advent over at The Mudroom. Join me there?