One of my favorite book series is The Mitford Series by Jan Karon which follows the life of Father Tim, an aging Episcopal priest who pastors a small town of folks. His charming encounters with over-sized dogs, a next door neighbor with great legs, overzealous congregants, and runaway children – not to mention his own struggles with far too much orange marmalade cakes, an inability to stop working, and deep insecurities make him altogether relatable. Even as a 30-something work from home mom.
I grew up Baptist. And it was the type of Baptist that I feel ran from tradition, liturgy, and prayer books. I heartily joined this contemporary movement as a teenager, shaking my head at those who feared the new services and scoffing over the rote repetition of written prayers.
Who needs them?
But Father Tim speaks them to life. Each ritual of a Sunday morning brings him closer to faith, not further from it. I became enthralled with the meanings behind Lent, Advent, and daily prayers as I lived them with him.
One such practice stirs my heart this Advent season. And it involves removing Jesus.
While manning Happy Endings Bookstore (such an excellent name for a bookstore, don’t you think?), Father Tim sets up the nativity scene in the front window, but he doesn’t include Jesus. The town goes crazy, “Where’s Jesus?” “Did you lose Jesus?” “Why isn’t Jesus there?”
Father Tim just smiles and goes about his business with an invitation, “Come at Midnight on Christmas Eve.”
In the middle of a snowstorm that could only come in a Mitford Novel, the people gather outside of the shop, their steps and voices muffled in falling snow. At exactly midnight, the lights are lit. The Christ child is in his place. They cry. They sing.
All is well.
And isn’t this what we hope for with Christmas? That all will be well? We sing about it. We watch movies about it. We worship the idea that on at least one day a year we all get along, show each other cheer, smile, nod, pretend everything is ok for at least a little while.
We anticipate the gifts, the egg nog, the traditional Swedish food (at least in our family, lutefisk anyone?) and rejoice in them. Which is fine and good. But what about when it isn’t? What about when there are missing family members due to trauma, loss, pain? What about when tension is stirring just beneath the surface of every conversation? What about when the kids are not behaving and you’re this close to putting coal in the stockings after all?
But what about when, though we sing Immanuel, it feels like God is not actually with us?
I decided I want to collect nativity scenes a couple of years ago. I have a couple of ornaments, a Little People set, a small scene I purchased at the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, and now a gorgeous handmade ceramic set from Trades of Hope, but have never done much with them other than put them on display – wishing I could somehow make them stand out. Make Jesus the true focus of our family during the Advent season.
This year it hit me: What if I can draw attention to Jesus not by surrounding us with him, but by leaving his place vacant?
What if I too remove Jesus? Would anyone notice?
As I face the emptiness of a nativity scenes without Jesus, I am face to face with a life empty of Jesus. A life instead filled with worry, stress, and fear. The life I frequently live.
Contrary to our popular, cultural belief, the Advent season is not a time to celebrate that Christ has already come, but it is a time to look forward to His coming. To wait for Jesus. Both as a baby and in our lives today. It is a time to lean into those areas of our lives where we are waiting for God to do something. To show up. To heal. To encourage. To bless.
For many of us, it can feel easier to not wait for God. It can feel easier to push through and just get by without acknowledging those hurts in our lives.
But as I look at the empty manger I feel the ache that a lack of God creates. I hear the cries of psalmists in my own heart, “How long O God, will I be forgotten by you forever?!” When will you hear my cry? When will you come?
The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son,
and will call him Immanuel (God with us).
This last week of Advent, with empty mangers around me, I will wait. And I will hope. Because what is waiting if we are not trusting that something will happen? And what is trusting if we are not in hope that it will happen?
I have my own specific requests before God. Prayers that healing and holiness will abound in our house manifesting itself in gentle speech, tender touch, and gracious patience. Prayers that we can see and hear one another as we continue to grow alongside one another. Prayers that we will be present to one another, seeing each other before we see ourselves.
And I have requests that extend beyond my home. Prayers that loved ones would experience and know Jesus’ love, not just hear about it. Prayers that mercy and justice would reign in this world. That there would be peace on earth, not just a wish in our hearts. Prayers that not one would die from hunger or lack, but all would be filled to the fullest.
As I wait for Jesus to show up, I am very aware that to hope is another vulnerable place to live. But it is an active way to live. We continue to show up, believing that God will show up. We follow Christ’s teachings, trusting His promises are true. We lean into the pain of the not yet, hoping that this is not all for nothing. But that one day, as that day so many years ago, we will all experience in full what it means that God is with us.
That Christmas won’t just be a day to celebrate that Christ came, but that He came again.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Beloved, I pray that you would feel safe enough to trust. That you would not just hear, but believe that God is trustworthy. That He is true, His ways are good, His presence is perfect. May this week of waiting for His coming be rich in sightings of His work here and now. And may He fill your home with Himself on Christmas morning. In all goodness and fullness of life. Amen
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