This weekend marks the first Sunday of Advent, a spiritual season of preparation for Christmas. About this time, I usually thumb through my collection of holiday books to select a liturgical guide to read with my family each week to remind us that Christmas is about more than the gifts we’ll find under the tree.
As a college student studying in Jerusalem, I was privileged to spend one rainy and cold Christmas wandering around Bethlehem with my mother. In the days before a concrete wall divided Israel from the West Bank, this majority Muslim city about six miles south of Jerusalem was an easy fifteen minute taxi or sherut ride from our school. Arab shopkeepers, with their open-sided kiosks lining the streets, sold strings of Christmas lights along with olivewood nativities and traditional sweets. With a flock of other worshipers, we knelt on the stone floor near the shrouded hollow in the Church of the Nativity where Christ is traditionally believed to have been born.
We decorated for Christmas last week on the first anniversary of buying our home. At this time last year, we were packing boxes in one house and frantically hammering down floors and painting walls in another. Rarely are the holidays Hallmark perfect. Congested stores, empty wallets, strained relationships, difficult family situations and unmet expectations have a way of crowding out the joy. That is why it is so important, during this third week of Advent, to take time to contemplate.
Is there anything much sweeter than a baby announcement? Who doesn’t love receiving a card in the mail with the pucker-faced picture of a relative or friend’s new arrival? I enjoy posting such proclamations on the fridge, eager to share the good news with any unsuspecting visitors who may walk through my door. So it was when a baby announcement reached a Judean hillside long ago. Only, this message didn’t arrive via a rural mail carrier. It arrived with an eruption of light via a heavenly angel. Friends and relatives weren’t the recipients, but a band of frightened, uneducated shepherds watching over their flocks.
One of my favorite Christmas memories is also one of my hardest. Suffering with cancer, my mom lived four hours away from our home in Maine. That winter and fall I drove back and forth twice a month. It would have been impossible without the kindness of strangers. You see, my mom lived in a cottage at the Willimantic Camp Meeting Association, a historic Christian community in Connecticut. Her neighbors, who were away, offered my family the free use of their house.