DECEMBER 17, 2020
We had one Advent calendar each Christmas when I was growing up. My grandmother would mail it to us from Connecticut in a manila envelope. My sisters and I took turns opening little doors to find pictures, and when we hung the calendar from the kitchen window latch, the picture behind each open door was like a tiny stained-glass window.
With my own three kids, we buy an Advent calendar with chocolates instead of pictures in the windows. And, because we have more of all kinds of “stuff” than I did as a kid, we also have three reusable calendars given to us over the years. There’s an Aussie calendar with a koala that travels from pouch to pouch for 24 days, and a felt calendar with ornaments in 24 numbered pockets below a felt tree on which to hang them. And my favorite is a storybook Advent calendar. Made of sturdy cardboard, it opens into a triptych, with 24 little bitty cardboard books tucked into paper pockets. The kids read one book each day, telling the Advent story.
My dad is a retired religion professor. Although my worst grades in college were in religion class, I have absorbed enough over the years to know that there are many Bible translations, and that some represent more scholarship than others. I’m not sure of the correctness of the details in our Advent storybook calendar. But I also don’t care too much (and I think my dad will forgive me this) for two reasons: (1) the big points are correct; and (2) the unfamiliar telling has led me to hear the story with fresh ears and a more personal understanding.
For one thing, reading this version of the story points me to the earthy reality of Mary and Joseph’s (and Jesus’!) own Advent experience. I put myself in Mary’s shoes. Skipping right past Mary’s acceptance of the immaculate conception—more than enough on its own to absorb—I empathize with the intrepid and very expectant Mary and Joseph making a mandated journey. I’ve never experienced anything comparable, but I know enough about expectant motherhood to be horrified at this thought.
Secondly, I am much more aware of the darkness and wickedness lurking around the edges of the story. I notice capricious rulers who, careless of the human effects, move people. In order to count them. In order to tax them. I consider Herod’s schemes and motives, and my back tenses.
And this leads me to the third and final aspect of the story I’m more aware of thanks to the storybook calendar: I am in awe at the mystical elements. The angels, dreams, and visions. And the willingness of Mary and Joseph, the wise men, and the shepherds … to listen, to hear, and to believe.
I am left with the clarity that I want to be like them. I want to be the people who look east. I want to listen for the angels, and then listen to the angels. I want to fear not, to believe, and follow the star.
“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.'” – Luke 2:10