December 9

When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD.
-- Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NRSV)

When I first met my friend G, he was rehearsing for a performance of the Mendelssohn oratorio Elijah, which contains a tenor aria taken from this Scripture. “If with all your hearts ye truly seek…” he sang. G and I became friends because at the time I knew him he didn’t have a car, and we had some destinations in common, so I became one of his “carpool friends.” In fact, one of my happiest memories of G is a memory of an Advent evening when we were driving in a heavy, silent snow—huge, fat flakes drifting down slowly, white against the dark of evergreens and the orange of street lights, glistening on the ground—and we were singing snatches of Handel’s Messiah to one another, enjoying ourselves, as if time would last forever. Our friendship was not always easy. We argued and forgave, disappointed one another and gave to one another, found ourselves distant at times and closer at others. I began to feel that G’s place in my heart was a ‘family place,’ that he was, on some spiritual level, a brother of mine. I don’t know what he thought—that depended from day to day. G was a restless spirit, who had tried a million things in life and had a million plans.

G became ill and was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. This was years ago; before the drugs existed that now offer at least some people hope for years of reasonable-quality life. His condition progressed rapidly, and I was one of a huge raft of people who took part in attempting to care for him. Together the group of us shopped for groceries, did laundry, interpreted medical results, took G out for social occasions, cleaned his house, listened late at night when he was alone and afraid, and tried with varying degrees of success to cope with G’s need for independence. The loss of agency was a loss G mourned bitterly in his illness, and there were times when despite my desire to be of helped I stepped exactly wrong and hurt his feelings instead. So we still struggled; we still loved and hurt and disappointed and forgave. And he was still my brother.
All G’s relationships in those last months were a dance of closeness followed by lashing out, but it is a measure of the greatness of his heart that, on the day he died, a group of us gathered at his bed, and each of us was a person who had been “fired” by G in at least one role, at least once. Still, we were there, as he knew at some level we would be, to love him through this great transition. When I arrived (we were skidding from all over town across ice-covered intersections on a winter morning) our friend W, himself a gifted musician, was singing softly to G, singing the same aria that had begun our friendship: “If, with all your hearts, ye truly seek…” W said what has stuck in my mind ever since: that, at the end, this promise of faith is one worth hearing.

There was a memorial service for G, and another of his musician friends sang. A glorious contralto, she picked for her contribution…that exact aria! And I sat, and wept, at the words and the promise. When I told her afterward of the multilayered connections between G, W, me, beginning, end, and those words, she was stunned. She had had no idea. She just felt it right to sing that particular piece. We stood and had goose bumps together, G’s last gift to either of us. He always liked surprises. And he loved having the last word.

From that day forward this Scripture has been a solid rock at the core of my faith. It speaks to a God of passionate involvement, a God whose promise is unflagging, a God who will not hide from the wholehearted seeker, a God who does not require specific words or specific rituals, a God who requires simply nothing more or less than our whole hearts. That same God who called to Mary and called to Joseph, that same God who calls to us each and every waiting day of Advent, promises that as long as we seek with our hearts we shall find. No doubts and no exceptions.

Almighty and amazing God, we thank You for the promise to reveal Yourself, if we seek You with all our hearts. Help us to lean on that promise when we feel far away from You. Help us to lean on that promise when our churches are less than helpful in our seeking. Help us to lean on that promise when the waiting seems too long and hard. And help us to seek You in Advent season, so that, as your Son was born into the world, You will burst also into our hearts and souls and lives. Amen.

-- Terri Colburn

December 8

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
--2 Peter 3:8-15 (NRSV)

So much of Scripture is filled with the anticipation of the day of the Lord arriving in sound and fury, loud noises and fire. Our Advent readings are filled with it. And yet, what is Advent about? It’s about waiting for a baby. And when we think of the baby in the standard Nativity scene, it seems peaceful. We see Mary cradling her child, with Joseph standing nearby. We see the shepherds arriving in quiet awe. Reconciling our moments at the crèche with Advent passages like this from 2 Peter can give us a collective headache.

But babies arrive in sound and fury. The delivery of new life is marked by the pain of the mother in labor and the cries of the child as it leaves the womb.

We can see all the signs of the advent of a baby, but in the end, a baby arrives when it’s ready. Not at the choice of the parents, not by the wish of the doctor. The family is in the baby’s hands.

At the same time, one knows a baby is on the way. There are things to be done, nurseries to prepare, diapers to buy. Even the most frugal of families has to change its habits and its home for a baby. The deadline of new life sharpens the urgency of all of these tasks. Because the arrival of the baby will reveal all the shortcomings of the family it is arriving into. Any untended emotional issues, any flaws in how the family functions together, will be laid bare in the days and years to come.
And yet, with all the pressure and work to do, it is a joyful time. New life is being created. A new family is on the way.
Humans tend to read passages about apocalypses with fear. The Lord is coming in judgment. Better clean up your act so you’ll measure up! You don’t want to receive the divine equivalent of coal in your stocking on Christmas morning, do you?
Instead of being afraid, or living in a pinched version of morality, what if we found this time to be one of urgent and joyful expectation of the new life to come? Of the new family in Christ that is being created?

No family is perfect. No one of us will be perfect when the day of the Lord comes. What family is perfectly prepared for its new arrival, for all the ways in which one baby is going to turn lives upside down.

This baby we’re waiting for turned the whole world upside down.

It’s the second week of Advent and there’s still time to clear a little room in the home of our souls as a nursery for the Christ child. There’s still time to imagine the changes that are coming. There’s still time to think about some new habits—of prayer, of giving, of letting go of self as the center of the universe. God is giving us extra time because the ultimate divine goal is salvation of all.

Perfection in righteousness isn’t possible in this lifetime, but every inch of room we convert in our hearts gives us a glimpse of the new life in the family God is making for us.

Lord of hopefulness and joy, we give you thanks for the patience you have for the whole human race, and for this Advent time of preparation for your coming. Deliver us from the tyranny of habits which control us and block us from you, and give us strength to pursue those which draw us nearer to your presence. We ask this in the name of the Christ who came into the world as a baby, to make us a new family in You. Amen.

-- Emily at Hazelnut Reflections

December 7

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,""
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Mark 1: 1-8 (NRSV)

We Christians have our own December dilemma. Where our Jewish, Muslim or Hindu neighbors may struggle to maintain their religious identities in the midst of the Christmas barrage, we struggle to maintain our spiritual integrity in the midst of a festival, which still bears the name of our Savior, but has become largely a secular extravaganza. The "Holiday Events" insert in our local paper last year had a separate category for "Religious Christmas Events." All righty then!

Some of us place a total ban on Santa, elves, Rudolph, Frosty, and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. Most of us, though, spend the season walking the tightrope stretched carefully between the Advent Wreath and the Christmas Tree. We do not want to be dour old Puritans, but we do not want to forget the Reason for the Season either.

Last December, a house I passed on the drive to my kids school displayed a banner exhorting, Keep Christ in Christmas! This is a brave proclamation in unchurched Oregon. But as I considered the tensions of the season, I wondered if perhaps I should whip up a few banners proclaiming, Keep John the Baptist in Advent!

We tend to assume that the big boxing match of the season pits Santa in the ring against Jesus. I am not so sure. Maybe the real action is the competition between Santa and John the Baptist.

- Santa and John the Baptist are both big guys with wild hair and weird outfits - red fur or camel's hair: take your pick.
- Santa and John the Baptist both have odd dietary requirements: milk and cookies or locusts and honey.
- Santa and John the Baptist both reside in hostile wilderness environments: the North Pole and the Judean desert, respectively.
- Santa and John the Baptist both proclaim a word of judgment and a word of promise. Here the similarities end.
Santa's word of judgment consists of "making a list and checking it twice." The naughty are cast into the outer darkness of toy deprivation. Santa's promise, on the other hand, is that those deemed "nice" will be rewarded with the fulfillment of their every consumeristic desire. So you better not pout, you better not cry.

John's word of judgment would singe Santa's eyebrows. We're all naughty! Every last breathing one of us. There is no bargaining. There is no last minute full court press of good behavior that can save us. The only cure for what ails us is repentance for our sins in the hope of God's forgiveness. John's promise is that there is One coming that is greater than he— One who can fulfill the deepest desires of our souls through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Mark reports that lines formed in the desert from all the people who flocked to hear John's preaching and be baptized.
One holiday season I made a rare trip to the mall, kids in tow, hoping to complete my Christmas shopping in a one afternoon blitz of grim determination. (Did I mention that I'm not fond of shopping unless it involves a bookstore?) As we dashed from Made in Oregon to Nordstrom’s, my small daughter gasped with delight. She had caught sight of Santa's Village and the long line of children waiting for their turn on Santa's lap.

"Please Mom! Please!" she pleaded.

What to do? The pastor in me wants to limit any child's exposure to the cult of Santa. The parent in me worries that my children will be scarred for life if I do not let them participate in this great American childhood ritual. We joined the line.
Ever the multi-tasker, I used the wait time to muse upon my not-yet-finished sermon on John the Baptist. How easy it is, I reflected, to join the wrong line. The world pushes us toward the line at the end of which we whisper our fantasies to a jolly fulfiller of wishes. The gospel calls us to join the line at the end of which we confess our sins, enter the waters of forgiveness, and look to the One who is to come.

You better not shout, you better not cry.
Better not pout, I'm tellin' you why.
Santa Claus is coming to town.

On Jordan's banks the Baptist's cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh.
Awake and hearken, for he brings
Glad Tidings of the King of kings.

Dear Lord, guide us into the right lines where we wait for the right things. Help us long for what lies beyond our wishes and hope for One who is greater than any we have met thus far. Amen

-- Rebel Without a Pew

December 6

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…
God has shown strength with God's arm,
and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

--Luke 1:46-47, 51-53 (NRSV)

This is a portion of the song Mary sings during her pregnancy with Jesus. It is an improvisation of the song Hannah sang after the birth of her son Samuel. The words have been set to music countless times, but my favorite setting is John Rutter’s Magnificat. The year that I found my way back to Christ, as a young adult, our church choir presented that glorious work in worship, and the rehearsals were a deep spiritual discipline for me. The soaring, joyful melodies provided the ideal soundtrack to that homecoming, to that first Christmas season back in the church.

It was only years later, when I was able to read Mary’s Magnificat without Rutter’s festive score ringing through my head, that I fully realized: the Magnificat is not a sweet lullaby.

It is a battle cry, bold and defiant.

Mary sings for the weak and the lowly, the poor and the hungry. Every hurting son is now her son; every hungry daughter is now her daughter. Before, they were simply among her; now, they dwell within her. And the song erupts from that place deep down where she carries them, where she bears them in her own body.

It is not necessary to be a mother, or even a parent, to feel such empathy. But one of the gifts and curses of pregnancy and motherhood for me is that I sometimes experience the pain of the weak and the lowly and the hungry and the hurting on a physical level. A cellular level. I never did before.

Something terrible happened recently to the loved one of a loved one, a beautiful and brave young woman. I dare not say what; the story is not mine to tell. The details are unimportant anyway, because it’s a story of violence that’s repeated daily around the world, a story that many beloved women in my life share. I will not tell their tales, but I can sing a song for them. And the song that I sing asks, begs, demands that God be strong in the gathering and the filling and the lifting up.
The day I found out about this terrible thing in the life of my young friend, my husband and I had tickets that night to see the Indigo Girls in concert. I carried this young woman’s story, and the stories of countless others, as I went.

Those of you familiar with the folk duo probably know that die-hard fans usually have a “favorite” Indigo Girl. As for me, I have always preferred Emily Saliers’s songs to Amy Ray’s. Emily’s seem more interesting musically, more delicately textured. Her lyrics operate on many levels and are especially ripe with biblical images. Amy’s songs are more straightforward. They are linear, direct, sharp like an arrow. Both women write powerful songs. Emily’s songs are powerful in their beautiful complexity; Amy’s, in their defiance.

So Emily is my favorite, but that night, Amy was singing to and for the women whose stories I carried in my body, whose pain I felt. Amy sings the Magnificat the way it is meant to be sung—thunderous, proud, piercing the soul.

“I saw a woman on the sidewalk…
she was beaten by a stranger.
(Danger Danger Danger Danger).”

Amy holds the audience rapt. She is singing their song.

“Let it ring
in the name of the man that set you free
Let it ring
And the strife will make me stronger
As my maker leads me onward
I’ll be marching in that number
So let it ring
One day we’ll all be free
Let it ring.”

Our secular culture’s way of doing Christmas clatters noisily against the church’s quiet observance of Advent. While radio stations play cheerful holiday tunes 24/7, we dare to sing, “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” Why do we bid the savior to come? Not to create some false dramatic buildup to December 25 (will the baby arrive again this year? of course he will, and right on time too). No, we bid the savior to come because we still need a savior. The world still needs healing and hope. The stories of hurt, violence and oppression that we carry within us remind us of this reality. And so, we sing. Defiantly, expectantly, confident in the God who shows strength and mercy, in hope for the day when all will be free, we sing.

We sing to you, O God, and to the Savior for whom we wait.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
Come for the sake of a wounded world.

--Reverend Mother

December 5

LORD, you were favorable to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you pardoned all their sin. Selah
Let me hear what God the LORD will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The LORD will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.

--Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13 (NRSV)

The night was cold and moonlit. The air was crisp and scented with the fragrance of wood smoke from homes alongside the lake. The three of us made our way through the deep snow to our favorite fishing spot of last summer. Our five-year-old daughter and I followed closely in the footsteps of my husband Jim, home for "Christmas in February" again. It seemed as though the Navy always planned these New England celebrations well after the Holiday, but we had our Christmas tree and decorations, and Santa made some special deliveries just for us, including snow we often didn't have in late December. We read again from the gospel of Luke the story of the birth of the One who died to forgive our sins and who came to give us the greatest gift of all.

Blissville Pond in Lisbon, Connecticut was frozen solid. It was a treat for Southerners from Tennessee to watch a pick-up truck fitted with a snowplow drive out onto the ice to clear off a place for skating and ice hockey games. We had never seen lakes freeze so solidly that you could play on them almost all winter long. You could probably walk across the lake to visit neighbors in those houses with the glowing windows and warm fireplaces. The snow was deep and coated with a thin, crunchy cover of ice. Our footsteps almost echoed as we made our way down the slope to the spot where last year we had caught those plump little sunfish and bass. Daddy had been at sea in a submarine that past summer, but we had made sure to take pictures of mother and daughter smiling and holding up the "big fish" for the camera. Now, it was hard to believe anything could survive under the shining surface of a foot or two of ice.

No need for "Mr. Reg" and his snowplow tonight. The ice was perfect across the six-acre lake. Not a wrinkle or a ripple appeared on that smooth surface. We huddled together for warmth and stood amazed at the beauty of God's creation. Crystalline bits of frost drifted down from the branches and the little trailer park where we lived was transformed into our own special winter wonderland. We didn't have much in the way of material possessions back then, but we had our faith and each other, and we had love.

The Psalmist tells us that love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace will meet each other just as the star-filled night sky met the snow and ice that winter's night. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground as the grass and wildflowers would spring up to replace the path we left on the snow-covered embankment. Righteousness will look down from heaven as sure as the rain falls and as certainly as we expect God's love to yield crops of goodwill and peace.

To our daughter, the snow covering our familiar route was an obstacle she didn't understand. Wearing her snowsuit and boots, she thought it would be easy after leaving the cleared road to make her way by walking beside daddy. She would walk a few steps on top of the snow, and then she'd sink nearly to her waist in a drift. She learned that with comforting hands holding hers and a trail already blazed, her route was made easy. So we can remember the loving hands of our Heavenly Father who holds onto our own and provides a path for our steps through the sacrifice of His Son. Do we remember to try to place our feet in the steps of the path He walked for us? Pathways of life become so much easier if we stick to the road he paved with his Word.

I don't know which of us first did the same familiar thing we always used to do in the summer. One of us picked up a nice, small flat stone and casually leaned down with a sidearm flick of the wrist and skipped the stone as though it might hop or jump several times and then plop into warm summer water. It skimmed the mirrored surface without a bounce or a bump. On and on it traveled, making an eerie sound that none of us had ever heard before. The extreme quiet and stillness of the winter night permitted a strange noise to resound along with the stone out onto the pond. The stone went further than any pebble had ever traveled over the surface of the unfrozen lake in the summer. We began to dig in the snow of the lakeshore to find more and more of the little rocks with a nice flat surface. It was an amazing night as we continued to toss those flat stones across the pond beyond our wildest expectations. We think that some of them even traveled the entire distance between our shore and the closest houses on the far side. We could hear them as they sang along the ice, the most unusual sound we had ever heard. It seemed a reminder of eternity.

Snow began to fall and the time of "singing" stones across the lake ended with us retracing our path home. The following morning the lake had a fresh layer of snow over the ice and no stone would be skipping across to the other side. We have tried it again and again over the years at many different places, but never have the right combination of circumstances existed that resulted in the same effect of sound, sight or distance. The stones singing across the pond that icy night resound in my ears nearly thirty years later.

I remember those Christmas celebrations we had when we waited long past other Decembers, but I remember this one most of all. I have known people in my life that seemed like those stones, skimming along a straight way until their love and faithfulness met the sky and their souls sailed on into eternity with Him. It is a good memory and one in which we can see the pathways of our lives and of the path we will tread if we follow in the footsteps of our Lord.

Gentle and Loving Creator, we listen to the words of love and joy that you speak to our souls. We look to You for guidance on the unfamiliar roads of our lives and sing out with love for You. May we travel on this earth with our hands in Yours and be guided into eternal life through the grace of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

--Auntie Em

December 4

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid, that she has received
from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."’
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion,
herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem,
herald of good tidings, l
ift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

--Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)

I must have been about five years old when my father first took me to a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I felt unimaginably grown-up as I filed into the local concert hall, and I’m sure my eyes were out on stalks as I watched my first real orchestra tune up and begin the overture. For a while, all was activity, as the strings chased each other in restless counterpoint. Then the mode changed to one of calm expectancy…and it was into this that a tenor dropped his notes of liquid hope ‘Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people.’

A long time has elapsed since that first experience, but it’s still almost impossible for me to divorce these words from Handel's inspired music. I think I should, though, because what is going on in this passage is anything but tranquil for much of the time. Of course there is reassurance, that God will surely come along the royal road prepared for him, but before he does so there will need to be something very much like an earthquake. Nothing will ever be the same again. Roads aren’t built without a dramatic effect on the countryside. Every time a new highway is proposed here, the U.K. press is full of stories of protestors anxious not to see valleys and hills leveled, and the natural landscape altered beyond recognition. No matter that a greater good may be evident— perhaps an historic market town will be freed from the impact of streams of heavy goods vehicles, threatening the foundations of houses that have stood for centuries.

Despite this, we’re reluctant to opt for change, and this passage speaks of some pretty dramatic changes, including that which makes us most uneasy— our own changed state from earthly life to death. ‘The grass withers, the flower fades.’ Now the soundtrack in my head has changed, and I’m carried along by Brahms’ German Requiem, the drumbeats heavy with anticipation of the inevitable. There will have to be many small deaths as we prepare for the coming of God. The leveling of mountains and hills, the smoothing out of rough places in ourselves and in our community, will never be without cost.

So often Advent becomes a time of frenzied accumulation, as we hunt the length and breadth of town for the perfect gift for people with no material needs whatsoever. Rather than smoothing out valleys and hills, we make mountains out of molehills as the days fly past, until Christmas shopping has become a chore, and we are simply desperate to ensure that there is something, anything, to wrap and put under the tree by December 25th. But the message of Isaiah here reminds us of the transience of all these things, and even of their intended recipients. Instead of accumulation, he speaks of simplification, …and then—oh, then the glory of the Lord will be revealed! What’s more, after the images of earthquake and reminders of mortality, the God who comes in might meets us in gentleness. He recognizes the scars that our own inner landscapes bear after so much upheaval, and scoops us up tenderly, as a shepherd a young lamb.

This Advent, many are struggling because their familiar settings have been changed irrevocably, the landmarks of their neighborhood cleared away overnight by the forces of nature. The things they took for granted simply aren’t there any more, and like the people of Israel for whom Isaiah wrote, they are refugees, temporary residents in communities that don’t feel like home. So these words are for them, too: ‘Do not fear…Here is your God.’

Whatever happens to the ephemera around us, that is something we can rely on. May we keep God as the focus as we prepare the way for his coming to each of us at Christmas.

Loving God, in a world whose landscapes are often distorted, help us to clear a pathway for you. Enable us to recognize that your presence with us is all the good news that we need to carry us safely through Advent, and through life, until you welcome us in your loving arms, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.


December 3

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
--Luke 1:1-4 (NRSV)

Lost in the standard Advent readings of the book of Luke is its simple beginning. The gospel account of Luke is, at its heart, an “orderly account” written so that Theophilus may know “the things about which you have been instructed.” Luke is a book of stories, of accounts, of things that that were handed on by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.

As we begin our Advent journey–each day progressing closer toward the birth of Christ— we are reminded that this is a special season of beginnings. Luke begins with a preamble, an introduction, a statement of purpose. The writing in this gospel is an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. But what exactly are those events? And what do they mean to us today?

In beginning our journey toward Christmas, we have an opportunity to reflect upon the events that lead up to Jesus’ birth, as well as the events in our own lives that have lead us to newness of life.

Like Theophilus, we have been instructed in the things that make up our faith in Christ. Like him we have been exposed to the truth of the miracle of Christ’s birth. But yet, we have a need, deep inside ourselves, to know more; to continue the search for greater knowledge, or perhaps just to understand our faith anew.

It’s easy to skip over Luke’s preamble and rush into the story of Zachariah and Elizabeth and on into Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. But this introduction gives us a moment to pause and to reflect upon the things we know, the things that we think we know and the things that we want to know. How have we experienced Christ in our lives? How has Christ provided us with newness? How can we be servants of the word? What is our own orderly account of how Christ is born in us?

God of newness, provide in us an opportunity to experience your advent today. Begin in us again. Allow us to be open to new ways of your grace. Provide us with new ways of experiencing you this season. May we be awed by you and your love. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

December 2

Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!

Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!

Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the LORD!

--Psalm 148:1-2, 7-10, 13-14 (NRSV)

When I was a child, and probably to this day, my mother kept a box of gifts in the basement of our house. Some of these were small trinkets that could be grabbed for a surprise invitation. Other gifts were picked up throughout the year with specific people in mind for birthdays or for Christmas. I'm not really organized enough to have a box, but I did buy my first Christmas present the other day. It's only September. And, while, I grumble and groan about the holiday paraphernalia lining the shelves before summer is even over, I am beginning to see the value in preparing and planning ahead. Which might explain why I have come to love Advent.

The gift that we receive at Christmas is obvious and glorious – the baby boy born to Mary and Joseph will go on to be the Savior of the world. But the gift that we receive in Advent is a little less flashy, perhaps less dramatic. During the weeks of Advent we are given the opportunity to prepare for the birth of that Savior. These four weeks that we spend draping our spaces in blue provide moments and time for reflection. These are busy weeks, no doubt about it. We rehearse for the pageant and we go caroling and we finish our shopping. We decorate our homes and we serve dinner at the shelter and we address cards to people far away.

Easily enough we forget why we do all of these things and just want the whole thing to be over. When it's January, I think, then I can rest. Psalm 148 calls on all creatures to praise the Lord – earth and sea and sky and all critters that inhabit those places. We go to great lengths to ready ourselves for the glorious birth of Christ, preparing so that we might receive and praise the baby boy. In scurrying about we might grumble and think that it's a whole lot of hoopla for the event of Christmas. However, our hurrying and scurrying is also praising God. We praise the Lord with our whole, in-progress beings.
I love Advent as much for the event that it prepares me for as for the preparation itself.

Writers and painters and artists of all kind talk about the process of creating being just as much art as the finished piece. All of our preparations are just as much praise as the one service of worship and celebration for the birth. We show our love for children not only by welcoming them into the world, but by getting ready for them, too –creating a place in our hearts and homes and lives, a process that takes months, sometimes years.

Advent allows us space for the process of getting ready for Jesus. We sing our praises for God's commanding presence and for the love that God shows to us. During Advent we do what we do to re-order our lives and make a place for Jesus. Clearly we should do this all year–a little bit at a time, constantly reminding ourselves of Jesus' presence in our lives.

And yet, before we make excuses or feel bad and guilty about why we don't always remember Jesus' presence, this season of blue cloths on the altar allows us to start anew. During these four short weeks we reflect on the ways that God has been present with us in the past year–at the birth of a child, at the death of a friend, when the wind and the water whipped too close, in the quiet drive home. We also can pray and hope for the ways that we want God to be present in the coming year–in the rebuilding of a relationship, in the anticipation of a move, in the discernment of a call. We can accept God's presence in our lives for the gift that it is–praising God with all of our being.

During Advent we hear Mary's song and about John the Baptizer, with his wilderness living. With the young girl and the mountain man, we praise God. With the coming of the snow or the warming of the earth, we praise the Lord. With the creatures and the earth, we praise God. With the rest of the world, we prepare for Christmas and praise the Lord.

Lord of All, I give thanks for the chance to prepare for the birth of Jesus. Be with me as I ready my heart and my home, as I reflect on what it means to give praise to you, and as I rejoice that you are always in my life. Amen.

--Pink Shoes in the Pulpit

December 1

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’
--Matthew 7: 21, 24-27 (NRSV)

Today would have been my mother’s 71st birthday. It’s my second without her, but I still mark the day with prayer and thanksgiving for all the blessings of her life. My mother was a sensible woman who built her house on rock … the solid foundation of God’s love. Everything my mother did was founded on this love. From the home she created for her family to the inmates she assisted in her job at the county jail. Her days were filled with small acts of kindness to everyone who crossed her path. Sometimes her actions might have seemed a wee bit crazy, but rooted in love she was never really shaken from her overarching desire to share that love.

Mary too must have known the importance of building a house on a solid foundation. I imagine the expectant young mother, readying her life and home for the new child Jesus on the way. This was of course made more complicated by the flight into Egypt and other dramas of the Christmas story. Sometimes her actions might have also seemed a wee bit crazy, like listening to an angel for one thing, but rooted in God’s love she was not shaken. Thinking of the teenaged Mary facing the unknown with such faith and trust only increases my awe at the inner strength she must have had. She did not just say, “Lord, Lord,” but truly welcomed God into her life … literally.

It’s the first day of December. Only 24 days left to go until Christmas. Many of us I’m sure are overwhelmed by our to do lists and wondering how, in the midst of our busy lives, we will ever manage to get everything done in time.
But what are we busy doing? Are we readying our homes and hearts in expectation of the birth of the child Jesus, or are we instead readying and decorating our houses built on sand? In our culture it is so easy to get wrapped up in the Christmas frenzy. Presents. Shopping. Decorations. Parties. More presents, shopping, decorations and parties. Questions, doubts and general anxiety. Is this the right present? Did I buy enough for my kids? How will I afford it all? Not to mention doubts about the quality of one’s own Christmas light display, cookie assortment and holiday hostess prowess. Christmas can sometimes seem like a competition instead of a holy day of prayer and thanksgiving.

A few years ago the Peace & Justice Commission at my parish organized an educational session called “Unplugging the Christmas Machine.” The purpose was to help people who felt overwhelmed by Christmas evaluate their plans and decide what was really important in light of the true Christmas message. Unfortunately, many were too busy preparing for Christmas to attend!

I remember one year growing up when my mother was so proud of herself for getting the bulk of her Christmas shopping done ahead of schedule. But she was then faced with a dilemma … where to hide the presents? The five of us were so adept at finding her hiding places in the house, that given the extra time we would surely discover them and ruin the surprise. She had what she considered a brilliant idea and ended up storing our presents in the trunk of her car, which only she had a key to. Problem solved.

Until one day very close to Christmas she came out of the shopping center to discover the trunk of her car open, and the bulk of the presents stolen. Horror of horrors! Talk about the ultimate Christmas nightmare. What to do? She did not have unlimited funds and had spent most of her Christmas budget on the now stolen presents. For my mother, this was the equivalent of the gale force winds hurling themselves against the house during the storm of the century. Christmas was ruined. No ifs ands or buts about it. Right?

Not really. I remember that Christmas as the best ever. Instead of giving up or spending the rest of the Christmas countdown frantically tracking down each present on her shopping list a second time, my mother decided to simplify things. She purchased the one item each of us really and truly wanted. And she spent the rest of the holiday season at home with her family. Hot Cocoa on a cold winter night. Christmas carols. Stringing popcorn and decorating the tree. Baking cookies. Playing scrabble. Sitting by the fire. Just being together as a family meant more to me than any Cabbage Patch Doll or Barbie RV would have. That Christmas, more than any other, stands out in my memory because it was built on love without all the other things to get in the way.

And when Christmas Eve came and the family went together to midnight mass, it seemed like we were ready to welcome Jesus into our hearts and our home. Which when you get right down to it, is really the whole point of Advent, isn’t it?

Loving God, Only 24 days to go until Christmas. Help us to be sensible men and women who spend this time readying to welcome you into our hearts and homes. Do not let us get too distracted by the pressures of the season. Gift us with the wisdom and strength we need to give up our foolish ways. Decorate our hearts with your love. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen

--Susan Rose