At times, the simplicity imposed upon us by both the house fire and our temporary living quarters feels like a gift brimming with meaning and grace. Stripped of all pretense and encumbrance, I really could not be better positioned to embrace the more penitential side of Advent, and this is a very good thing.
But at other times, the starkness is oppressive. Although I know this season is just that—a season—the hope of what will be just can’t quite take the sting out of what is. To my seriously limited sight, the earth-shattering “now” of God-with-us seems somewhat eclipsed by the heartbreaking “not yet” of ultimate redemption. Like all of Creation, I’m desperate for the unveiling of God’s kingdom: the happy ending; the big reveal. The hand of God wiping every tear from every face. I see this longing in the trees reaching barren arms to the sky; I hear it in the far-off cries of the sand hill cranes homing southward, and in the rendings and groanings of my old farmhouse as saws and crowbars plunge into its heart pine bones.
I didn’t really know what to expect from this Advent and Christmas season. Back in the summer, I wanted to leave town, escape all the sadness of displacement through novelty and distraction. As December drew near, however, something persistent and familiar kept tugging at my sleeve, like an old friend calling out my name amid a roomful of strangers.
There is beauty in this place, it whispered out of the void. There is something here you don’t want to miss.
Soon after we moved into this RV I felt a surge of resolve: I would bring beauty and order into these “conditions that seem unpropitious.” I would incarnate all my ideals within this 36-foot trailer, carrying every conviction about the sacredness of domestic spaces and the essential holiness of home into exile with me. I would hone structure out of chaos, shaping our days to an ancient rhythm. I would show hospitality, keep this trailer spotless, take daily walks, and maintain the practical miracle of a vegetable garden. I would have flowers on the table, regular tea times, morning devotions. In short, I would fight sorrow and loss with the time-honored weapons of candlelight, pretty china, routine, and home-cooking.
I wanted to win this round for Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. Instead, I ended up with a pinched sciatic nerve and a summer of rest and muscle relaxers.
It wasn’t what I had in mind, and, in a way, my despair over physical pain and helplessness was even darker than my despair over the fire. Beauty for ashes had been a flickering hope amid such terrible grief; bed rest, on the other hand, felt like one blow too many. I finally understood the connection between hopelessness and squalor, and how feelings of abandonment can ultimately lead to the abandonment of standards and ideals. That was a terrible precipice my heart drew back from in horror—but the understanding remains.
“There’s a deeper beauty here, sweetheart,” my mentor said, after listening to a litany of my complaints. “There’s beauty here because He’s here—and sometimes outward beauty has to take a backseat to that truth.”
Advent is, first and last, an assent to a great hope. It is a confident expectation, all appearances to the contrary. To observe this season is to clear a space for Christ to come into the messes and mundane realities of our lives; to become a womb, as it were, for the good and loving purposes of God. As with Mary, God isn’t seeking our credentials, our perfect observances, even our most ardent intentions—with jaw-dropping heavenly courtesy, He’s merely seeking our consent. The loving latch-key of “Be it unto me.”
The eyes we lift to Him may be tear-filled, but the gaze they meet is unfailingly tender, radiant with mercy and—dare we believe it?—mirth.
It’s nearly dark now, and there are dishes in the sink, a pile of mail to process on the coffee table, animals to feed, supper to prepare. From the house, the saws and hammerings persist, a strangely sweet music in this phase of restoration, and there’s a dwindling pile of rough-sawn lumber on the front walk. Instead of Christmas mirth and merriment, my home is filled with sawdust, cold shadows, empty spaces waiting for walls.
But out here in this trailer, there’s a little Christmas tree blooming bravely against the darkness, and an Advent wreath hung from a hook over the coffee table. Their familiar beauty is a comfort in an unfamiliar setting; all of the strangeness of this time and place feels somehow friendlier in the face of twinkle lights and handmade ornaments and an unprecedented use of tinsel.
Let every heart prepare Him room, the old carol reminds us, and if there’s anything that this particular Advent season is teaching me, it’s that this preparation is much less active than I had previously imagined. Not to dismiss the bright bustle and joyous celebration of Christmas–I’ve always loved and found great meaning in it, and I always will. But amid such a forced leanness, I’m learning that preparing Him room means little more than an opening of the hands and a whispered yes.
In his incomparable book of liturgies for the common hours, Every Moment Holy, my friend Doug McKelvey includes an exquisite prayer for an Inconsolable Homesickness (and what does Advent underscore if not our exile?). Towards the end, Doug articulates the work of sorrow in a way that, to my mind, distills the longing of Advent and the hope of Christmas into a few short lines:
…we are not just being homesick;
we are letting sorrow carve
the spaces in our souls
that joy will one day fill.
That’s an image I’m carrying with me into this Christmas season, as the circumstances of my life and the grief of the world around me all cry out for the coming of our King. “Good is always coming,” as dear old George MacDonald faithfully reminds us, “though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it. What we call evil is the only and best shape which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.”
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.