We moved houses this year. We used to live in the red brick house at the top of the hill on 6th Court South. Now, we’re in the gray cottage with the red door at the end of 7th Avenue South, where the streets are flat and wide and the sidewalks are mostly even. But I’m grateful that moving doesn’t change traditions – especially Advent ones.
When I first moved into my house, my roommate introduced me to her tree-decorating tradition. Rather than putting all of the lights and ornaments and decorations on the tree the day after Thanksgiving, she used the time in between Thanksgiving and Christmas – the season known as Advent – to decorate the tree slowly. The first week, only lights adorn the tree (we use a lot of lights, though, so I would argue that we could have a tree with just lights and it would be beautiful). The second week, we add the gold balls. The third week, we add the silver ornaments. And the fourth week, we add the lace-cut angels and other small ornaments before filing the tree with our sentimental favorites on Christmas Adam (otherwise known as December 23).
The act of slowly decorating the tree has been a sweet practice for me, a reminder of preparing my heart for Christ’s coming. A reminder of the need to slow down and wait in this season of Advent. It’s quite antithetical to everything holiday-related, isn’t it? Slowing down and waiting. We’re hustling and bustling and busy and trying to check everything off of our to-do list. We want to have our entire house decorated the day after Christmas, with the gifts wrapped under the tree and the Christmas cards addressed. (To those who were expecting Christmas cards from me – this year, I’ve failed you. Please accept my sincerest apologies.) We really do want all of life to happen according to our timetables and our schedules, by our standards.
Rather than just rushing and decorating the tree all at once, we take a week to enjoy the beauty of each stage. The beauty of the evergreen tree with only lights. A reminder that He is the light of the world – in Him is life, and that life is the light of men. The gold and then the silver remind me of the priceless nature of Christ’s love for us, and point forward to the beauty of the new heaven and new earth, which will be designed with perfect jewels and priceless precious metals. After all, He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. These glittering orbs are just a shadow of what is to come.
I think the practice of Advent has been helpful in teaching my heart to wait. I don’t do well waiting. In fact, I helped write and edit an Advent guide about waiting this year because I realized how much I struggle with waiting. I want everything to be fixed and better and well. I want life to happen according to my schedule. I want to skip past the mess and the muck and brokenness and pain and get to the beauty.
Christmas is an especially hard season if you are waiting for anything. For me, Christmas is always a struggle as I wait in my singleness. It seemed like my mailbox was flooded full of cards this year, full of joyful families. I wonder if I will ever be able to share Christmas pictures of my children. I wonder if I will ever have children at all. I wonder if I’ll ever have a plus one to invite to that party, or to go with me to that performance, or to sit with me at church when it seems like everyone is there with someone and I am alone. I know the rhetoric of the church being the body of Christ and the family of God – and I live it. That is my story in many ways. But the joy that brings doesn’t replace the longing to share life, and dreams, and hopes, and desires with a partner in ministry. It makes it easier, but it doesn’t take it away. And all of the sweet children who hug me each week – they are the testimony of spiritual mothers and spiritual children in the church. But the sweet child on my lap, asking me to color with her, doesn’t take away the longing for my own children either.
I am turning thirty in 2017. I can hardly believe it. I am partially shocked – because I once thought thirty was old! – but also a little scared. I thought my life would look so different at thirty. Certainly at twenty-five I thought I would be waiting for different things at thirty. Though my story looks so different now, those same threads are still woven throughout. If I could have it my way, I would have the waiting over. Actually, I would have had it over long ago. But that’s not the way life works, it is?
I’m sure this was true for Israel too. Hundreds of years passed between the prophetic promise of a Redeemer to come and the birth of Christ. Years of faithful Israelites waiting for their faith to be sight. Hebrews 11 tells us that some passed into the next life without yet receiving what was promised – but what was promised would still come to pass. In “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley describes it this way: “Late in time, behold Him come – offspring of the virgin’s womb.”
Late in time. The Israelites spent a lot of time too. It probably did seem like “late in time” in comparison to the history of God’s working. Why had he delayed? Why the waiting? Why did he choose to break into history and time and space in that moment, in the Bethlehem baby? I don’t know. I wish I could give you some theologically astute answer, but the best I have comes from Paul in Galatians, where he explains that Christ came “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4-7).
The picture of the tree fully decorated is the picture of “the fullness of time” for me. I may have been longing for it to be decorated and finished and complete all of Advent, but sitting and waiting and lingering in the incompletion teaches me to appreciate that so often, God works less through big showy displays of his power and more often through the quiet disciplines of everyday life, as scattered and imperfect as they are. He is working in the midst of the brokenness, in the unfinished nature of this life, even in our hearts as we wait. Because really, we aren’t waiting for husbands or kids or physical healing or better jobs or reconciliation with loved ones. Really, we are waiting for him – and all of these other things are lesser but good things, wrapped up in the hope of the One who came, and who promises He will come again, in His own timing. We wait for his second appearing with hope. And all of these other waitings are true but small echoes of that waiting.
It’s the third week and our tree is mostly decorated, but not quite yet. I’m sitting in the red chair in the living room. No one else is home and the house is quiet. I relish these moments sometimes, as an introvert. But sometimes I also long for a season where I am not single, where I am not alone. I sit here in the quiet of this rainy and cold afternoon and appreciate the unfinished nature of what God is doing, even in the waiting. Knowing that there’s no promise or guarantee for marriage period – or for a happy, lasting marriage with children as a byproduct of a fruitful relationship. So few things are promised to us, really.
But I wait in the quiet, looking at the almost, but not quite yet decorated tree, and I am reminded that eventually, all of our waiting will come to an end. We will see him face to face. That is what or hearts long for – whether we recognize it or not. In the fullness of time, he will come again.