* * *
I remember — distinctly — how overwhelmed I felt the first time someone suggested an Advent celebration to me.
Four nights. I’d have to set aside four nights during the busiest four weeks of the year. Lighting the candles sounded nice. I liked candles. Prayer was fine. I liked prayer. Sitting around a table asking questions and singing songs? That part I could do without.
“You’d be blessed,” my friend promised.
I didn’t believe her. It sounded like one more activity, one more “have to” in a month already crammed with have to’s. I accepted the paper she handed me, glanced at the suggestions, and thanked her. When she left, I filed the paper in the very back of my filing cabinet.
It probably would have stayed there forever except for a half-hearted prayer I tossed toward God one day soon afterward.
I’d been out shopping with the masses. Armed with four pounds of toy catalogs and flyers, I elbowed my way through crowds, hissed over parking spaces, stood in lines twenty people deep, and heard enough musical bells and animated Santas to drive a person insane. I spent too much money on things I was certain no one would like or appreciate. Worst of all, on a whim I picked up the newest book by Martha What’s-Her-Name on “How to craft the world’s most memorable Christmas ever using only a glue gun and fresh bay leaves from your own bay tree.” Despite the fact that I didn’t have a bay tree and couldn’t remember when I’d last seen the glue gun, I plopped the book in my cart.
Driving home, I realized that something was way out of whack. My month was as full as it could possibly be. I’d loaded our schedule with every festive event I could find: concerts, parties, cookie exchanges, pageants, tree lighting ceremonies. There wasn’t room for a single thing more. And still I wasn’t happy, or satisfied, or contented. I didn’t feel close to God. I didn’t even like Christmas anymore. In fact, if I could have my way, I would have ripped December right out of my calendar.
I couldn’t pinpoint how it had happened, but somehow Christmas had taken on a life of its own. It drove me, in an endless cycle of haves and wants and musts. I was on the Christmas roller coaster and feeling sick.
“Something has to change,” I said out loud. Not much of a prayer. But God, I’ve learned, can read between the lines and find a prayer hidden in our little outbursts.
I lugged my purchases up to the house and hid them in the bedroom closet. With a cup of tea in hand, I curled up in my favorite chair and opened Martha’s new book. I turned the pages, slowly at first, then more rapidly. One by one I vetoed the projects and recipes. Too big. Too expensive. Too weird. Gold leaf on cookies? Who puts gold leaf on cookies? Who eats gold leaf on cookies?? Most of the projects called for things I’d never owned and probably couldn’t track down if my life depended on it.
Dejected, I tossed the book on the coffee table and wandered outside. Voices drew me to the sheep barn, where I found Dave and Zac, then four, spreading fresh straw.
Dave used the pitchfork, but hands-on Zac was down on his knee scattering straw with his hands.
“How was shopping?” Dave asked.
“Oh, you know. Plastic Santas. Angry people. No parking. Same as always.”
I wasn’t good company. My two men wisely kept working and said nothing. Until Zac, finally, made an announcement.
“That doesn’t feel good,” he said, pulling straw out of his sleeve. “It’s not comfortable on your skin.”
From my perch on a bale of straw, I watched but said nothing.
“It doesn’t feel good.”
“Well, then, don’t put it up your sleeve.” Cranky mother.
“Well, it’s just . . . I was thinking. Was Jesus really born in a barn?”
A cave, I thought. It was probably a cave. But I just nodded.
“Why did that happen?”
“They tried to find another place for him to be born, but there just wasn’t room.”
“That’s not good.” Zac shook his head.
He’d heard the Christmas story every Christmas of his young life. I couldn’t understand why this was bothering him now. “It’s just the way it happened,” I said.
“But, Mom,” he said, walking toward me, “feel this.” He laid a handful of straw on my arm and stepped back. “It feels bad.”
I looked at Zac. I looked at the small pile of straw on my arm and felt it prickling my skin. He was right.
His eyes were troubled. “They laid Him in a manger. I know what that is. That’s a thing full of straw. That’s not a place to put a baby.”
No, I thought. That’s no place for a baby.
“They should have made room for Him some place better,” he continued.
They should have made room, my thoughts echoed.
“It was God. He should have been born in the nicest hotel.”
The straw was still sitting on my arm. I collected it in my hand and let myself feel its scratchiness. And I tried to imagine my Savior lying in a bed full of plain, rough, scratchy straw.
Something clicked for me in that moment. Zac’s words pierced my mind and burrowed into my heart. No room. No room for Jesus. The Innkeeper was me, and I had left no room for the Savior.
I saw what was wrong, suddenly. I had pushed the Baby out and let unimportant things take the place that was His. I had banished Him to the far corners of our holiday. Church on Christmas Eve, maybe a prayer or two. A quick read of the Christmas story. Nothing more. All the rest had been reserved for talking Santas and toy catalogs and parties and such. A whole lot of fancy nothing.
In my quest for the perfect Christmas I had lost the meaning of the manger. I had forgotten the simplicity of the straw.
Our Christmas changed after that. I started by bringing that handful of straw up to the house and stuffing it in an old canning jar of my grandmother’s. Then I set it in a place of prominence, where it would remind me, with each glance, of the miracle that happened in a long-ago cave.
Next, I pulled out the Advent paper from the recesses of my filing cabinet. Studying the suggestions, I decided they were a bit too formal for our free-spirited family, so we started from scratch and formed our own Advent celebration. That first year Zac and I fashioned a simple wreath from evergreen branches we found lying in the yard and molded five little balls of clay into candle holders, which we tucked around the wreath. Nothing fancy. And on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, not knowing what to expect, we gathered around our table, dimmed the lights, and lit the first of the five candles. Dave opened with prayer.
“Lord, we ask Your forgiveness for our neglect. We want to honor You. We want You to be the center of all we do this month. More than anything else, Lord, we want Your presence.”
“Dad,” Zac whispered, “it’s not polite to ask for presents.”
* * *
This year, I pray you find your own way to make room for the Baby — the Baby the whole world is desperate to dismiss. May the miracle of the manger become a reality to you again … or for the very first time.