In a recent blog post Enbrethiliel jumps off a quote from me to muse about Advent and Christmas. Well, today I’ll return the serve because her post has got me thinking and segues neatly into an explication of all that I’ve been pondering in my heart. She wrote:
Today’s First Reading is about how King David was inspired to build a fitting home for the Ark of the Covenant. (“Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the Ark of God dwells in a tent!”) It made me reflect on the theme of home—and the shadow of homelessness—we find in all Christmas stories, beginning and ending with the Christmas Story.
Even those stories in which Christmas is kept but either Christ or the Mass is forgotten are told in the shadow of the inn which had no more room. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl has its protagonist peering into the windows of happy households, but never coming in out of the cold. We have almost the same plot in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, as Scrooge observes domestic holiday scenes from a distance his past choices will not let him bridge. Ernest Hoffman’s Nussknacker und M�usek�nig begins with a prince in exile and ends with a girl longing for what has become her true home. Something iconic from our own times is John Hughes’ movie Home Alone, in which an eight-year-old boy who believes he has wished his family away learns that the only thing he really wants for Christmas is his family back.
. . .
The point is that what one finds adequate for eleven months of the year may suddenly seem intolerable when Advent and Christmas roll around. Deep in our souls, we are disturbed when our homes are not just so, as if the Holy Family might peer into a window at any moment and find that we, too, have not made room for them.
Probably not coincidentally, I’ve been reading Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl with Bella of late. We have a beautiful picture book version whose illustrations enchant both of us. Dom, overhearing, thought the story a little grim for a two year old. I love the ending though, with the little suffering soul going to heaven in the arms of her loving grandmother. It helps me to think of how Christ comes in the midst of our brokenness, the poverty of our spirit which has nothing to give him. No, the real gift of Christmas is not what we give to him or what we give to each other, but what he gives to us. Ours is to receive, even if we feel unworthy, unprepared, still he comes creeping in to bring us peace and grace.
Sometimes the season of Advent makes me too caught up in the idea that I can prepare myself, perfect myself, achieve a level of peace that will make Christmas into a magical time. But God’s peace is not like our peace. I really like the Home Alone analogy: the peace of Christ comes to us in the middle of what sometimes seems like a war zone when we have forgotten our need for family and think we must go it alone. He arrives not in the fullness of our preparations but in our emptiness and longing and our desperate neediness. And even when we feel like we have no room to give him, still he may find a way to enter in despite all that.
This Advent was a particular trial for me. As usual I started off the season with a resolve to set my spiritual house in order, to renew my prayer life and my spiritual reading, to make a greater place for Christ so that Christmas would find me ready to welcome him. But He seems to have had other plans. Just before Thanksgiving I found I was pregnant again. I began Advent with a sense of joyful expectation and adventure, a romantic notion of uniting my expectation with Mary’s and joining her on the journey to the Nativity. Almost immediately all my grand schemes were undermined and my peace destroyed.
One morning about a week into the Advent season I sat nursing Sophia with my volume of the Liturgy of the Hours open on the bed beside me. As I fought to stay awake, to read the psalms and responses, I started to feel sick to my stomach, that terrible surge of nausea overwhelming all my best intentions. Helplessly, I surrendered and closed my eyes, replacing the ribbon in the book and allowing the page to fall closed. After a time I opened my eyes and found my gaze resting on the crucifix hanging on the wall near my bedroom door. Almost as if a voice were speaking, I heard a gentle, loving rebuke: Stop this fighting. This is not what you should be doing right now. Rest. Close your eyes and rest.
Of course I thought I knew better so in the next few days I tried again and again to pray the Liturgy and every time the exhaustion and nausea would rise and I had to close my eyes and give in and drift. The book in its leather case sat beside my bed like a rebuke. But when I lifted my eyes to the cross I found myself praying in words not my own: “My hope is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth,” and “Jesus I trust in you.” And I prayed for certainty and each time I was sure that it wasn’t my own thoughts but another voice which was telling me to stop, to rest and give my body what it needed so desperately.
Then today the thought came to me: I am bereft of the consolation of prayer. I have read other blogging moms renewing their resolutions to begin each day with prayer with a sense of loss and desolation and failure. I so want to start the day reading the psalms as I nurse Sophie, but instead I give in and close my eyes to allow my poor exhausted body to take a bit more of the refreshment my soul craves. I have read of this place, this darkness where the soul is bereft of the light she longs for. I’ve read of it from Therese of Lisieux and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. But I got confused. They are talking of something more spiritual and exalted, surely, than this silly first trimester sickness of mine, aren’t they?
But my friends (Thank God for friends!) remind me that this place of loss and failure may be precisely where God is leading me. This helpless flailing in the dark is His way of reminding me of my own poverty. It is surely no accident that I keep facing Advent and Lent with all these physical burdens of pregnancy and new babies that get in the way of my attempts to map out my own spiritual journey. I think I know the way I should walk but again and again I find Him leading me by other ways. Darker ways. Harder ways.
Motherhood has taught me again and again my own helplessness, has stripped away all illusions of control and exposed my vanity that thinks I can chart my own course, diagnose my own illness, or heal my own brokenness. The mess my house descends to in these times of trial reflects the mess of my soul. I long to be able to rise up and set my house in order and I find that I must give in to the demands of my gestating body.
The Word became Flesh and pitched his tent among us, here in the midst of the mess and chaos, exactly where we need Him most. I am reminded that Mary too had plans which were unfulfilled. I am confronted by the contradictory messages of Advent: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John cries out in the wilderness. And yet the Nativity story tells us of the repeated thwarting of Mary and Joseph’s attempts to do that very thing. The birth did not happen as any mother would have chosen, in a well-prepared home. No, and Mary and Joseph were all too soon forced to flee their home to make their dwelling in uncertainty in a strange and godless land. We too would prepare a Home for the Christ child and we too find ourselves helpless and homeless.
If King David and his descendants Mary and Joseph failed to prepare Him a fitting home, what chance have we? In this world we can only find glimpses of Home, a taste of the place which He has prepared for us. We are exiles, wanderers, full of yearning. And all our preparations will come to naught and the more we try to chart our own course the further off we will be swept by the tides and tempests of life. And only by surrendering the fight can we possibly hope to win.
And so in my helplessness, I cry: Come! Bereft of my private prayer time, I still am able to pray with my family the nightly prayers over the lit candles of the Advent wreath: Come! I do not recite the Psalms; but still we pray the O Antiphons in the week leading up to Christmas and I see Bella’s eyes light up as we sing:
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
And He does come. He comes in my tears and in my brokenness and I do find peace in the midst of turmoil when I cry for help and hear finally not just one but a chorus of answers: still, small voices that come when the rage and the tears have passed and I have allowed myself to become little and helpless like a child in my Father’s arms, quiet enough to listen to His voice.