We have now officially entered the Christmas frenzy. Can you feel it?
We went to cut down our tree in the middle of the week at 4:30 p.m. as it was getting dark because we didn’t want to deal with the weekend crowds. Don’t get me wrong, I love that people come to the North Fork for their pumpkins and their Christmas trees, I’d just rather avoid the crowds, especially when I’m assisting my daughter and her service dog.
Many people complain that Thanksgiving should be celebrated first, before the Christmas decorations appear. Personally, I think Thanksgiving is a wonderful opening celebration to the holiday season. Gratitude for the blessings we have is a beautiful way to begin the season of giving. We can’t give or receive well if we aren’t thankful for what we have.
Celebrating the season of Advent, a time of spiritual preparation before Christmas, is also a good way to prioritize the preparations in a more reflective way to keep us focused on the reasons for the season. While Advent has been a part of the liturgical calendar in the Catholic Church for hundreds of years, many other Christian faiths also now celebrate Advent as the season to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
The world around us prepares for Christmas in a frenzy of shopping, excess food and drink, and bigger and brighter displays of light. Advent is a different kind of preparation. The word advent means the arrival of a notable person or event, a new beginning. In the Catholic Church, Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year. This new beginning allows us a time to recalibrate our expectations, to reflect on where we’ve been and where we are headed in the new year, all in the light of the coming of the Lord.
I love the images of Advent — the softly lit trees, the empty mangers and candles lit week by week on the Advent wreath — all are images that help me to wait with joyful expectation for the coming of the Lord.
But nothing drives home the purpose of Advent like the image of a pregnant Mary. I can relate.
I’ve been there and done that — eight times. Pregnancy is all about waiting with joyful expectation and preparing for the child that is to come. I have four beautiful children, two born in fall and two born in the summer. The preparations were similar, though the seasons required different clothes. My girls born in the summer obviously didn’t require the bundling that my November babies did. But all the pregnancies involved a sense of hope-filled waiting; even those that sadly ended in miscarriages began in hope.
Psalm 5:3 says, “In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.”
Waiting on the Lord in joyful expectation to answer our prayers or come into our lives in a deeper way is not a passive stance. It’s not like passing time while waiting for a bus to arrive or a delivery from UPS. It’s an active decision of trust which can take years.
Sometimes we wait for years for our prayers to be answered. I remember the first time I asked God to heal my daughter. She was a 3-month-old infant with tubes and IV’s coming out of her brain, and her arms and legs. Knowing God was telling me it would be a long road ahead, I told God, “I choose the path of miracles.”
The past 20 years have been a path of miracles, from my perspective. But from the outside looking in, living with chronic illness and disabilities, suffering economic and personal losses, even death, my life could appear to be cursed by God rather than blessed.
But I know differently because I have learned the primary lesson of advent — to wait for the Lord in joyful expectation. This kind of waiting is rooted in an understanding that God will make something beautiful out of the sorrows in our life. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is something that all of us can learn.
Recently, I acquired a beautiful hand-painted icon of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth based on the scripture from Luke 1:39-45. The icon depicts Mary and Elizabeth in a joy-filled embrace and you know without a doubt that they are pregnant. It’s like an ultrasound picture of Jesus and John the Baptist in their mothers’ wombs. Talk about waiting with expectation!
Luke recounts a dynamic and joyful encounter of these two cousins. Elizabeth was long beyond childbearing years and yet God blessed her and her husband Zechariah with a baby named John who became the prophet who prepared the way for the Lord. Mary was a young, unmarried girl, to whom the angel Gabriel said, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31, 35)
The encounter between Mary and Elizabeth in the Visitation is one of joyful expectation. Both women waited on God, in Elizabeth’s case, for many years, with joyful expectation. Elizabeth proclaimed to Mary, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” John the Baptist from the womb recognized the coming of the Lord.
But not all our waiting is done in joy. Last week, I needed to recount what Advent and waiting for the Lord to come, means to my daughter as she struggled in her recovery from her most recent surgery, the day before Thanksgiving. For the first time in 20 years, Johanna asked, “Why me?”
I felt a pit in my stomach as I resolved to comfort her and give her an answer. I reminded her of all the good that has come in her life, in our life and the lives of others through the struggles she’s endured. And I reminded Jo that many years ago she told me that she heard Jesus ask her to wait with Him in the garden like the disciples did the night before He died. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth in that garden weren’t “Why me?” Rather Jesus began His prayer, “”Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” His was a prayer of faith-filled expectation, in the midst of deep human sorrows. For the moment, those words consoled my daughter, as we together recounted the numerous blessings we’ve experienced along this “path of miracles.”
I encourage you to celebrate Advent and slow down the Christmas preparations to focus on waiting for God to come into your heart and home. If you do, I promise that you will receive a gift of hope that will exceed your expectations and provide more than any of the gifts on your Christmas list.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.