For the past few weeks, I have been going through the motions. I wrestle with Advent texts, write “to do” lists, and mail packages to faraway beloveds. This marks the first Christmas that two of our three “olders” are so far away from home that they won’t be with us, one on the opposite coast and the other studying abroad in Japan.
This shift in the family system only magnifies the things that feel hard this year everywhere. Somehow, since last Christmas, the whole world seems to have piled on more disregard for one another’s humanity, whether those judgments are based on race, nationality, religion, orientation, or gender identity. Religious leaders and Presidential hopefuls alike call on our lowest common denominator, fear. Who is going to listen to the interim pastor of a small church in the suburbs when she cries out for a change of heart and mind? Who is going to listen to an ordinary pastor who is not being interviewed on CNN or Fox?
Maybe you can tell we’re a little bit low around here as we go through the motions of Advent at church and the preparations for Christmas at home. We carried home a tree bought from the Boy Scouts. We debated the number of lights we could hang since we live in a manse, and the Presbyterians pay our electric bill. We compromised on some battery-operated candles for the windows. It feels unusually heavy—not a depressed Advent, but a weighty one. The antics of our 9-month-old Lab mix leaven the mood just a little as he protects us from the tree by biting off a branch, but because of his proclivity for carrying things off, we haven’t set up a Nativity scene yet.
The church I serve gathered recently for the Advent Supper, an annual event that includes seasonal decorating. Since I arrived sixteen months ago, there have been a disheartening 11 deaths in the church family, dropping the membership below 80 and weekly attendance to 40. You know it is a hard stretch in church life when the ladies preparing a funeral luncheon wonder if one of their number will be the next to go. Yet we gathered to do what is expected. While the numbers at the supper were only slightly down from last year’s, we could look around and know immediately who was too busy caring for a declining parent—who not long ago would have been hanging the greens herself—to attend.
Still, half a dozen kids eagerly helped put up the tree and set up the crèche. Their grown-up sisters decorated the altar with dozens of white candles to be lit on Christmas Eve, a hedge against the darkness of an encroaching and undefined future. They keep going through the motions. In a smaller church, the choices being made are often quite familial, and in this case involve multi-generational families who value worshipping and serving together. Sharing a pastor, or having even a very part-time one, feels preferable to breaking up what is comfortable and known and precious.
I often hear from our #2 Son, who with his girlfriend is doing all he can to make his new apartment feel like the home he has known. On Thanksgiving they cooked a big dinner for two, and their Christmas tree is up and adorned with lights and their few decorations. When Facebook Messenger dings, he may be asking me how his grandmother made the special Swedish rutabagas, or she may want my molasses cookie recipe. They are sad about the distance, and already anticipating how we will all miss each other, and that makes it all the more important to go through the motions, to practice the rituals, to claim the truths.
A church grows small, the children grow up, the world spins: God’s steadfast love endures forever. (Psalm 118:1b)
This year I find myself pondering that phrase in my heart. God’s steadfast love endures forever. Humankind doesn’t deserve it; we would be nowhere without grace. I wonder if sometimes God doesn’t have to go through the motions, too. Some years must be harder than others.
I don’t expect that the little white Christmas trees with battery-operated lights I bought at IKEA will bring in God’s new age. They’re cute, but their power lies not in their style or brand. It lies in the action I take. When I flip the switch, I say no to despair. When I flip that switch, when I pick up the tags with items the church is collecting for the homeless, when I send canned goods to the elementary school for families in need, I am claiming the things I believe.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:3b-5)
The Nativity set is still safe in the box. I remember it from my childhood, arrayed on my grandmother’s mantelpiece, the magi on the left and the shepherds on the right, making their way slowly to the manger. Today I will arrange them on our living room bookcase, beyond the puppy’s reach, the wise men coming from the East, the shepherds huddled on the hilltop of a higher shelf. I will keep going through the motions, to practice one more ritual, to claim the truth.
I will flip the switch, and the darkness will not overcome me.