Around my later middle school years, I remember asking my mom about the date of Christmas Day.
Thanksgiving lay on the horizon, and, I expect in attempt to understand exactly when my vacations from school would transpire, I wanted to run through the general layout of holiday dates.
“So Thanksgiving is always on Thursday?” I prompted.
“Yes. Fourth Thursday of the month,” Mom replied, eyes fixed to what she was doing, loading a dishwasher or chopping something for dinner.
“And Christmas – that’s, like, the 23rd? Or 24th of December?”
She paused to look over at me. “It’s the 25th.”
“And it’s always the 25th? It doesn’t move around?”
My mother, who had backed away from God, Jesus, and any packaged religion you might offer sometime in her early 20’s and didn’t look back until she was in her 60’s, was still genuinely shocked. “Yes, it’s always the 25th.”
I love how this story points flashing, neon arrows at how little I knew of Jesus until these last few years of my life.
And now I’m a lady in my thirties, buckling down for my fifth Advent. Do you know who I think gets an even bigger kick out of this than me?
I like to believe this just delights Him no end.
Here’s how my first Advent played out.
There I was, right in the middle of a divorce, and life in major upheaval. Looking for a full-time job, looking after my kiddo, and our home, and our dog, with no clue of God, except as some heartwarming concept warming the hearts of other people. Not me.
That time still feels murky for me, but I remember so many days of feeling like all I wanted to do was go home, unzip the weird alien-skin that was functioning-in-the-world me, and climb into bed to hide.
I started attending an Anglican church near our home in late October, early November. I went alone at first, meaning without my daughter, afraid some crazy Christian would say something too Jesus-y and scare me off.
Advent started about 5 to 6 weeks after I began these church-forays.
I missed my first Advent.
Understand, I was present at every service.
But I missed Advent.
Perhaps I was vaguely aware of the change in songs or liturgy. Heck, I don’t even know what liturgy is at this point in time (to be fair, my comprehension, 4 years in, is average understanding at best).
We sang, we recited, we sang some more, we bowed, we repeated some more. There wasn’t much room in my brain for the subtlety of moving to a new Advent liturgy.
After 3 or 4 Sundays, I risked bringing my daughter with me. We attended the Christmas Eve service too. However, her father and I made arrangements for him to pick her up during the service, to spend a portion of the evening with him, before coming home to me.
Halfway through the service, I walked Dorothy outside. It was dark, and cold, a little windy, and rainy, your basic Christmas Eve in East Tennessee. After the exchange happened, I returned to my pew in the back, where I liked it. The church was dark, lit by candlelight.
Prior to communion, the priest makes the same announcement each time. “This is not our church’s table, this is not an Anglican table. If you’re a baptized Christian, please come up to receive communion. If you are not a baptized Christian, please come up anyway. We’d love to give you a blessing.”
Until this service, I stayed put.
It’s an awkward thing to do, especially with other folks in the row. They’d smile encouragingly, indicating it was my turn to head to the front. I’d smile back, kindly I hoped, and give a little wave with my hand, fingers pointed to the ground, as if to say, “no, no, you go on,” like this was some buffet I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy.
Which, I suppose, is exactly what it was.
Sending my kiddo off with her dad that evening, even for just a few hours, I felt the threat of where this new life led. Switching halfway through birthdays, Christmas days split in two, having her every Mother’s Day, not seeing her Father’s Day.
My mind couldn’t comprehend the full brokenness of it.
But my heart felt it.
It was one of the first deep, irreparable cracks this divorce would leave.
The candlelit church, the dark night outside, and my breaking heart conspired against me. They pulled me from my safe seat, right into line, right up to the priest.
That’s the first time I received a blessing.
I crossed my arms. He put his hand on my upper arm, the fleshy part, and gave it a little squeeze. I remember a part of the blessing involved him taping at my feet with his own. I’m embarrassed I can’t remember it now; I would receive the same tidings every Sunday for another year.
The sanctuary, the darkness, the candles, the singing.
The awareness of this messy world, broken by people.
The talk of hope, of a baby being born to save a world.
In that candlelit sanctuary, among people I didn’t yet know, all pouring their hearts and attention into God, among these old traditions of songs, and prayer, and liturgy, I felt safe.
I wasn’t saved, but I wasn’t alone either.
It was the first (but certainly not the last) time I cried at church. I have now become a long-time goer, constant-crier. But that night marked something new happening in my heart.
In Revelation, John (possibly my favorite disciple) shares words coming from Jesus to him in a vision.
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”Revelation 3:20, ESV
Christmas Eve is the last night of Advent. I missed nearly all of my first Advent. I was so tired that first year of meeting a god, this God, the one I’d spent so much of my life missing.
But that’s the great mercy of God, I’m starting to see, the One who stands at the door, and knocks. It was never about us finding Him.
God’s always finding us.
Tonight, as we enter into this first week of Advent, here’s my prayer for you and yours: Lord, You are the God who listens, both to what’s said, and what’s left unsaid. You know, as we read every Sunday during Advent, the desires of our hearts. You know the aches, too, and the pains. And for us all, You’re making all things new. Please stay close to us, Lord, those of us looking and those of us who still don’t see. Please keep knocking and calling, God, until every one of Your children opens the door. Amen.