Christmas of 1969 was D-day for my family and me. December of 1969 concluded a year-long countdown that started on the day that dad purchased a rural ranch house near Lake Springfield. To accommodate two adults and seven kids, that small house’s square footage had to be doubled. And so, for a year, we lived in our old house while the new house was being dug, poured, piped, wired, cut and hammered together. With great anticipation, we would visit the construction site. There we would pass through treble lit, plywood passageways. Progressively, we began to glimpse the emerging home that, previously, only my dad and his contractor could envision.
If Thorton Wilder were to write the equivalent of “Our Town” for my family, and were to give each of my siblings and me the opportunity to relive just one scene of our lives over again, without consultation, I know which scene would be unanimously chosen. Each of us would tumble back in time to that Christmas of 1969.
That was a time brimming with excitement and generosity. It was as if there was such an abundance in our lives that it could not be contained. We simply had to open up the boundaries of our family to include others. In addition to the parties, and drop-ins to see the new place, my dad had invited an old bachelor colleague of his, Benny Dunn, to move in with us. Mr. Dunn had developed an aggressive form of cancer, and had no family to care for him. On that first Christmas morning in our new house, Benny Dunn’s presence under our Christmas tree sent the message, “In this family, there is more than enough.” My new hockey skates were great, but the real present that year was the sense that our family was a gift.
On an Advent Sunday evening several years ago, Lisa and I invited some old friends over who know something about being a gift. Together, Angie and Jenny had pooled their money and labor to purchase and slowly renovate a broken-down old house in North Saint Louis. Over dinner, they described what it was like to finally move into that home and realize their dream of opening their newly rehabbed dwelling to a homeless mother and her three children.
By the time Angie and Jenny had said their goodbye’s, bedtime had arrived. My, then, eleven-year-old daughter and I stared out of her darkened window at a cold, wintertime sky. We wondered if the eleven-year-old at Angie and Jenny’s house was snug in her bed looking out of the window of her own new room at the same sky. We imagined what it would be like, after five years, to finally have a home of your own now. What would it be like to gather around your own Christmas tree for the first time in five years? What would it be like to finally carry within you a feeling of home? As I pulled her covers up and kissed her “goodnight,” my daughter closed her eyes and smiled as if she had just heard the most soothing bedtime story imaginable.
In this Sunday’s Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent (Matthew 11: 2-11), Jesus said that up until his time, the world had never known a greater man than John the Baptist. But he went on to say that in the new kingdom, inaugurated by his incarnation, death, and resurrection, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John the Baptist]” (vs. 11). What could Jesus mean by these stunning words?
I think this passage points to one of the essential messages of Advent. As a kid, I used to think that Advent invited believers to take a look back over their shoulders at the past. During Advent, we Christians were supposed to get our minds right-we were to remember the historical lesson that Jesus is the reason for this season. In this way, Advent presented believers with the opportunity to get properly jazzed up for another round of the right kind of Christmas mojo.
In light of this Sunday’s scriptures, it may be that Advent has less to do with a retrospective look back over our shoulders, than a prospective look at an emerging kingdom that God is trying to co-create with our hands, heart and intellect. John the Baptist, from his historical perch, could only point to the time in which we are now living. Jesus’ incarnation, and subsequent indwelling presence, places within our hands the capacity to midwife a further sharing of that kingdom in the historical circumstances of our own time. Our destiny and solemn vocation is to hasten that time when Christ will be all-in-all.
What does this Advent vocation look like? It looks like the bright light of Advent candles illuminating a dark room. It looks like a couple of adoptive aunts creating a home and a future for a woman widowed by a culture that snatches husbands and fathers away from their own children. It looks like the 1969 version of my family whose boundaries were widened to provide a dying man a place to live and love on his last earthly Christmas. It looks like any effort made to provide faith, justice, fidelity, and peace so that every mother’s child can wear a bedtime smile as they drift off to sleep.
This Advent/Christmas season, what will you and your family do to hasten Christ’s emerging kingdom? How will you make of your family a Christmas gift?