My mom used to stay up until dawn on Christmas morning, cleaning the house, wrapping gifts, creating a Christmas dream in our family room. I never knew why she waited so long to get everything done until I had my own kids, and now realize that anything I could prepare before Christmas Eve would need redone by Christmas Eve, because kids live here. I have 3- she had 7. It would be like preparing a special morning for a pack of wild dogs, and doing it while they were off leash. It is impossible to understand our parents until we are parents ourselves, and while I know that I can’t possibly comprehend the pain and joy of a lifetime of parenting after my measly 4 years of doing that work; understanding my mother’s holiday rituals is a small step in understanding her and her love for us.
As the mother in this particular home, I also now get why people dread holidays. It’s a lot. The self-created expectations often suffocate the joy, and I’m beginning to see why some people (including my husband) hate Christmas. Or, honestly, just don’t “do” Christmas at all. But the reason I anticipate this time of year with such delight isn’t Christmas- it’s Advent.
I love Advent, the season of celebrating Christ’s coming. I grew up with Advent as the focal point of our year as a family. December was the one time we consistently spent together with our Bibles open as a family. My Dad was a pastor and our church was very small, and he and my mom didn’t exercise great boundary setting with their congregation, so I don’t have that many memories of my dad being my dad versus being my pastor. He was always gone. Besides the church, he also owned a remodeling company, and, of course, there are also 7 kids in our family. He was busy. He even told me recently that he doesn’t really remember much from our childhoods, so I know he felt that distance too. The most concentrated memories I have with my dad are when all of my siblings and my parents gathered in our big upstairs family room around the Advent candles, learning the story of Christmas and how it tells the entire story of our faith.
We lit 4 Advent candles over four weeks: a candle for the prophets, the angels, the shepherds, and the wisemen. We studied their purpose and place in the story- and I mean, we studied. My parents were not afraid to push us into the Old Testament, to ask us to fight through the sacred texts of Isaiah and then connect those promises to the telling in Luke; they made us work for our faith. We weren’t allowed to come by it easy, they didn’t make excuses for the Bible and how weird it is sometimes, or for the hard work it takes to dig through the word of God. Christmas in our house was a deep abiding in the promises from the prophets, the fearful glory of the angels, the unadulterated joy of the shepherds, the relentless seeking of the wise man.
Looking back, I know that these 4 weeks each year were what made me love the Bible. I’ve always been a story-teller, and I’ve always loved words, and the word of God is like nothing I’ve ever encountered.
My childhood faith was formed in an eccentric, tiny, conservative baptist church. We were pretty hip, using new fangled stuff in the early nineties, like praise books instead of hymns and overhead projectors in the sanctuary: we were real trailblazers. We rented a church each Sunday afternoon and every family had to help set up and tear down each week. Church was an extension of our whole life. But even as a child it all felt void of tradition, so the Advent season appealed to me in it’s liturgy, in the repetition, in the candle lighting, in these ancient stories and how they still meant something now.
There’s a weight to this tradition that calls to a deeper part of me. Advent. Jesus coming. It’s the nucleus of our entire faith, and it rings with the truth of who our God is and who we are- it’s the pinnacle of everything that matters, the point when everything changed.
Advent is when we remember that our God is a God of kept promises. And what I’m realizing as I learn to trust Him with more and more of my life, is that God works in layers, in layers upon layers, concentric and tangent and angled: an entire geometry of truths connected to truths. I love that the transparency of the Gospel, the message of that revolutionary love and sacrifice, works like double-paned glass. There are two visible planes, two equal and undividable surfaces on which He works: the sweeping narrative of a universal love story, God coming down and saving all of His people; but also, the intimate love story in each individual human heart.
One side of the glass is The Story- the big story- of an entire human race in big trouble. Right? The sin of Adam and Eve stamped forever on our DNA, a darkness each of us is born carrying deep within. Although we are presented with great evil at every turn – we look around this world, we watch the news, we cringe with the harsh realities of what sin unchecked can produce – it’s hard to understand the destitution of a newborn soul, the cloud of poverty we live under when still sinners without a savior. It’s hard to look at my baby daughter and imagine that she carries in her very blood enough sinful tendencies to require the full blood of Jesus Christ.
It’s a little easier to understand when I look at my 2 year old and four year old, admittedly, because they clearly need saving. It’s also easy to understand when I examine my own heart, when I parse out my own past, when I consider the uncertainty of my own future: I need a Savior. While that truth, that all of us are born with such great need and hurt, isn’t a popular view, I think we all know. When we are quiet: we know. We have no peace. We are desperate for something better, something clear.
And that’s the other side of the glass. Each one of us.
I am at this point in my life where I often feel fragile, worn to the bones by the children I’m raising. They’re little and they’re always with me, and they always need me, and honestly, sometimes I feel so alone in that weariness. Like, surely the Lord has bigger things to deal with, even in me, than this tired place of defeat I often operate out of. But I read this verse recently, and it made me cry, because it told me once again how tender and personal the Lord is to His people. To me.
Isaiah 40:11 says,
“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to His heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
He gently leads those that have young. I just couldn’t believe it when I read that. He knows I’m tired. And he knows how often during each of my hours I fail my children. And how emptied I am in their needs. And he leads me gently. Because he knows I have young.
And the thing is, I won’t always be in this place. Life will move and grow and change, these kids will grow up, my needs will change, and in that, He will move ahead of me and come behind me, and will give me exactly what I need in each season.
He will answer our calls. He will clothe the poor. He will care for the widow. He will comfort the bereft. He will guide the teachers. He will be faithful.
God promises to save the whole world from sin and sorrow, and then he does it. So we know He will also keep every promise he lays in our own beating hearts. He came to rescue all of us, but that’s just the harmony. The melody is being sung over you: He came to rescue you.
This also means that we mustn’t look away from suffering. If Jesus was for all, we are for all. We cannot actively or passively avoid the pain around us. We cannot ignore our family we can’t stand, the stranger we don’t understand, even the person we sleep beside each night, while wondering how to stand with them at all. In fact: We must be advent to them. Caring for the widow. Comforting the bereft. Guiding. Teaching. Giving. We are Christ come, the kingdom in a willing pair of hands and feet.
God says in Isaiah 43, He says this to every single person, “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.”
That is advent. That’s advent for me, raising my little kids, that’s advent for you in your season of life, that’s advent for all the kids who didn’t eat yesterday, for the men who are dropping bombs, for the leaders we love and the ones we hate: He gives people in exchange for their lives.
The gospel story is in the entirety, and the story is entirely in the individual. Two panes. That’s how our God works. And it’s beautiful. It’s incredible. Advent reminds us that the long narrative of the gospel, told through the prophets and the angels, told to the shepherds and the wise men, is the story of all mankind; but also, it is the promises kept to each and every one of us. He saved every Jewish slave from Pharaoh: He also kept his promise to Moses. He made a nation from Abraham as numerous as the stars in the sky; but first, he kept his promise to Sarah. He saved all of us through his beloved son; but also, he would have done it for even just one. Just one of us would have been enough for God to sacrifice His only son.
And that’s what we see in the movements of Advent. A gospel story that began the moment God breathed us into being; a story of kings and nations, of prophecy and war, a story that stretches throughout all eternity, the width and depth of which we cannot fully understand this side of heaven.
The story of Prophets who spoke truth through history. The story of a blessed Hebrew girl named Mary. The story of shepherds who heard and then shouted the news to all. The story of angels who obeyed and believed. The story of 3 magi who risked their lives to bow down to a baby. The story of that baby, played out in that stable, now present here, to all of us, each of us, our personal savior. He who came to save the world called my name. Calls your name.
God’s love is that glass window, those two equally weighted planes of glass, inseparable- the story of us all; and the story of each one.
I used to wonder if I love Advent just because it reminds me of my mother, up until dawn on Christmas, of my father and his steady belief, and if maybe my faith is too wrapped up in memories and my family to be valid. Then I grew up. And life got hard. And I had to find God on my own, had to burn my own idols before I could really worship the King of Kings.
But now, as a parent, as a woman being led gently as she leads her young, I can only hope and pray that someday, when my kids blow out a candle, the smell of that thin smoke will remind them of our family room and our Advent candles, and will draw them back to the story, draw them back to the window where they will press their faces to both panes of glass and know that they have been called to glory, along with everyone else who would confess that Jesus is Lord.
Merry Christmas, but really:
Welcome to Advent.