When she was only two days old, my firstborn was the subject of an Advent sermon at our Episcopal church. Our rector, Bill, told about visiting me the day before Leah was born. He recalled the physical cues in our apartment indicating that a beloved baby was expected—the quilt handmade by my mom draped over a rocking chair, the cradle under a sunny window, a stocking bearing Leah’s name hanging from the stair banister. He contemplated how well our household’s expectant waiting for our baby’s arrival mirrored the church’s expectant waiting for the Christ child’s arrival. Fourteen years later, friends from that church fondly remember Bill’s Advent sermon about Leah.
During Advent, our churches and online communities inevitably ring with admonitions to slow down, to eschew over-the-top cultural norms around all the baking and decorating and buying and giving perceived as necessary. There is no doubt that American-style Christmas preparations can be excessive, making Advent into a rushed, joyless, budget-busting sprint, the feast day at its end an invitation to collapse in exhaustion rather than revel in celebration. One reason I remain in a liturgical church tradition is that we maintain Advent as Advent. We don’t deck the church out in festive greenery or sing carols until Christmas Eve. Last Sunday, I dragged myself, despite painful broken ribs, to my church’s Advent Lessons and Carols service. The service, held in a candlelit church and featuring gentle, poetic hymns and scriptures, encourages quiet contemplation rather than frantic activity or premature celebration. My soul needs that hushed expectancy in this time of too-big to-do lists. I couldn’t miss it.
But every year, I also become annoyed by pleas to take Christmas preparations down a few notches, to keep it simple, to cut to-do lists in half, to replace busyness with quieter, more spiritual preparations. Such pleas, while well-meaning, seem to ignore the incarnational, deeply physical nature of God coming to us as a newborn baby, born the usual way, with blood and pain and effort, in a stable of stinking, snuffling animals. I think back to that Advent 14 years ago, expecting our first child. How did I prepare to receive that child, and the two who followed? Certainly I prayed, for the child and for us, as did others. But I could not prepare myself, really, for the consuming love and work of parenthood. I could not prepare myself, really, for the child whose face and body and very self were still a mystery.
Motherhood has, for me, primarily been an act of radical hospitality. I have had to stretch wide my arms, heart, and home to receive these children, with their quirks and loves and hurts and joys and needs, many unexpected, some unknown until an event cracks open the smooth veneer of our daily routine to reveal the devastating beauty and jagged edges inside. That stretching can hurt, a lot, because of my resistance or because the reality I must embrace is simply too big for my feeble arms. Back in the Advent of 1999, no amount of prayer or quiet contemplation could prepare me for welcoming my first baby and learning to love her, through all that would come.
So I prepared for my first baby, and the others, the way most of us do. I bought clothes and diapers. I set up a crib and a comfortable place to nurse. I put casseroles in the freezer. I cleaned the house. That Advent of 1999, I also made and froze Christmas cookies, got my shopping done early, and trimmed a small tree. Attending to practical, physical tasks around feeding and care of others and readying the house was not a distraction. They were the primary way I prepared for the life-changing encounter with my newborn baby.
Of course, today’s expectant parents can take an excessively consumer approach, spending thousands on unnecessary gadgets and a tricked-out nursery that will be outgrown in a few years, if not months (or never used, if you end up, like me, with a baby who is most content sleeping in his car seat next to his mom’s bed). Likewise, we can take an excessively consumer approach to Christmas. Nonetheless, even guarding against consumer excess, our Advent expectations are embodied in decorating, lighting, baking, shopping, wrapping, and mailing—physical tasks centered on feeding and care and hospitality. They are how we prepare to welcome the newborn Jesus once again, not a distraction from that preparation.
Because of my recent fall and injuries—several broken ribs, a broken bone in my shoulder, and partially collapsed lung—I have spent most of this Advent on my couch, unable to do much to prepare for Christmas beyond a little online shopping. This seems the perfect recipe for a slower, more contemplative Advent, right? It’s the perfect set-up for a blog post about how my injuries forced me to realize that all the tasks that consumed my time in previous years weren’t that important to an authentic season of waiting and preparation.
But really, I am grieving being forced to bow out of the pre-Christmas rush. When I venture out of the house, I take in all the light displays, and regret not seeing them every evening, as I would if I were driving my kids around and going to evening meetings and making late grocery store runs for cookie ingredients. I miss making lists of those ingredients and plotting a baking schedule. I miss listening to the 24-hour Christmas carol station in the car. I miss untangling cords and wrangling extension cords to put a candle in each window. I even miss cleaning the house to prepare for hosting special meals and make space for the tree.
Christmas will happen in our house, of course. Teachers will get nice store-bought cookies instead of homemade. My daughter and a friend will make a few cookie batches for family celebrations. We’ll have a decorated tree, even if it will stand in a living room that is not cleaned and decluttered to my usual taste. We may not get around to hanging our outdoor lights or putting candles in the windows, but those windows let in the welcome sight of our neighbors’ lights.
But not being able to spend Advent physically preparing for Christmas makes me feel that I’m not preparing at all. For it is in the bodily-need–driven, care-oriented tasks of baking and wrapping and cleaning and decorating and lighting that the expectation and celebration is done. Christmas lights twinkling in the cold darkness, the anticipation of gifts, and a table laden with special foods are powerful, incarnational acts through which we anticipate the light, the abundance, and the nourishment of God with us.
Just as the quilt and stocking and cradle were cues that my husband and I were expecting our first baby 14 years ago, the decorations and treats and gifts are cues that we are expecting the Christ child once again. We lay the table, stock the freezer, make ready the house, and then wait for the encounter we cannot really prepare for. We wait to see how this child’s arrival will crack the veneer of our comfortable routines to reveal the devastating beauty and jagged edges within.