The month of December has been full in our household this year – full of varied events, concerns, prayers – full of waiting, as is typical of Advent. But the waiting this year has felt more complex and stirred a different response than many an Advent time of preparation. It’s been the waiting of sleepless nights and early mornings and days so full you find yourself living in the moment. It’s been a mixed-bag season of waiting and preparation – of prayers offered and answered. Perhaps it’s best explained through the metaphor of the muddled messages in my December inbox.
December has long seen an increase in the volume of mail one receives in his or her inbox. Whether we are talking about your literal USPS mail box, your email box, or the varied other means by which persons communicate these days (instant messenger, text or other Social Media); inboxes are generally stuffed during December. They contain a myriad of sales advertisements, the usual bills, flyers from local businesses, year end political reports, holiday event notices – and then there are the Christmas greetings. Yes, we still receive a number of cards each December and send several ourselves; even though the trend in Christmas card giving has decreased overall. Picking up the mail on a December afternoon, at the end of the drive way or through one’s email provider, can bring a smile to your face as you read greetings, view pictures and reconnect with friends from miles away to right next door.
This year, my inbox has been particularly crowded. In addition to a variety of Christmas cards, hardly a day has passed since December 4 during which an expression of sympathy hasn’t also been received. You see, December 4 was the day my mother passed away. Hers was a gentle and peaceful passing at the end of a long life and month’s long deterioration of her quality of life. In many ways I feel it was an answer to prayer – hers and ours. After all, death is not the worst thing that can happen to you when you are a Christ follower. We know that Mother’s passing has ushered her into a new experience of living like none she’s known before. So, we grieve, but not as those who have no hope.
Still the contrasting imagery and messaging of reading both Christmas greetings that announce good news to all, peace on earth, and often come with enhanced graphics of good cheer – next to sympathy cards which remind you of what’s been lost, extend “thoughts and prayers” and offer condolences; it’s just been a muddled sensory experience.
Today my wife, in the constant effort to tidy things up, sorted through the many cards which we’d been depositing in the same basket. She made two piles: Christmas cards and Sympathy cards. I asked, “which one is the bigger pile?” She said, “they are about the same.” And they were. Of course, as the one who generally picks up the mail, I could’ve told you that. Each day as cards were opened it’s been the back and forth between an announcement of new life and a reminder of a life well lived.
As a pastor I’ve often felt the strong connection that exists between the nativity of Jesus and his cross. It’s foreshadowed throughout the birth stories, if we’ll just pay closer attention. It’s there as Mary ponders all these things in her heart. It’s in the gifts received from Magi; and prior to that in their conversation with Herod. It’s in the warning Joseph receives in his dreams. It’s present as Simeon and Anna greet the infant Jesus at his dedication and forecast the sorrow his mother will know. This is a child come to die. This is Messiah whose very act of redemption will cost him his life.
I’ve walked with many a family, during Advent, as they laid a loved one to rest. Some years I’ve had as many and three or four December deaths over which to preside. I’ve heard family members speak of how the season was different for them due to their loss. I’ve seen the conflicting emotions as they attended Christmas Eve services in the shadow of their own loved one’s memorial . But I had never walked it myself.
Please, know this – I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, nor to illicit undue sympathy. I am very much at peace with my mother’s passing. It was time, and in fact, I do believe it an answer to prayer. But, as the busy month has unwound – bringing with it a multitude of additional events, concerns, and waiting – I’ve often felt the urge to pick up the phone and call the one I would have so naturally called when life happened. I would have called Mother – to let her know the news, get her involved as a prayer warrior, or seek her counsel or consolation.
And while in fact it has been some months since Mother was able to converse by phone; each trip to the mailbox that yielded it’s mixed-bag of greetings, each time a message of like expression dinged in the inbox, I was reminded that I could no longer make that call.
It’s OK. It’s just different. This Advent season has been different. But through the waiting I have been aware of God with us in strong and poignant ways. I have been comforted by those sympathy cards and those Christmas cards. I have given thanks for the Good News in a cycle of life kind of way. I know soon the inboxes will become much less interesting. All that will be left will be bills and advertisements – and then in 2020 the awful political stuff of an election year.
Can I tell you this? I’m going to miss the muddled messages of the past month. I’ve come to look forward to them. With each card has come the reminder that Emmanuel is here – God is with us.
Praying that whatever work you’ve done in Advent has been helpful. Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Blessed New Year!