In the process of moving and reorganizing some bookshelves in the middle of October, I recovered something long out of place. A small Nativity scene carved out of olive wood had been inadvertently left behind from the previous year’s Christmas. Holding it in my hand, I cowered at the thought of digging through boxes in the garage long buried by post-Christmas storage. At this point, it seemed better to be two months early in setting it up than ten months late in packing it away. I decided to keep the carving out.
Strangely enough, my decision then coincided with a friend’s mentioning of a good Christmas quote. Advent was suddenly all around me. In a Christmas sermon given December 2, 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!” To be early with my Nativity scene suddenly seemed a wise, but convicting thought. I had kept it around for the sake of convenience, what about the sake of remembering? If Advent reminds us that we are waiting in December, what reminds us that we are waiting in October or February?
The story of the Nativity, though beautiful and familiar, and admittedly far-reaching, is as easily put out of our minds as Christmas decorations are put in boxes. On certain sides of the calendar, a carved Nativity scene looks amiss. Sitting on my mantle in the fall or the spring, it seems somehow away from home, far from lights and greenery, longing for Christmas fanfare. But looking at it with thoughts of Advent near, I am struck by the irony that longing is often my sentiment amidst the burgeoning lights, greens, and fanfare of Christmas.
Bonhoeffer continues, “When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us… The hardest heart is softened. We recall our own childhood. We feel again how we then felt, especially if we were separated from a mother. A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart. But there is something more—a longing for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father.”(1)
Unlike any other month, December weighs on my heart the gift and the difficulty of waiting. In the cold and in the hymns, I remember that I am troubled in soul and looking for something greater; I remember that I am poor and imperfect and waiting for the God who comes down to us, and I hear again the gentle knock at the door. Like the Nativity scene on my mantle in June or October, I embody a strange hope. I see a home with tears and sorrow, but I also see in this home the signs of a day when tears will be wiped dry. Advent is about waiting for the one who embraced sorrow and body to show us the fullness of home. It is not December that reminds us we are longing for God to come nearer, but the Nativity of God, the Incarnation of Christ. For each day is touched by the promise that in this very place Jesus has already done so, and that he will again come breaking through, into our world, into our longing, into our sin and deaths.
In his sermon on Advent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer offered a prayer worth praying in December and year round. “Lord Jesus, come yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us. Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness. Share my sin, which I hate and which I cannot leave. Be my brother, Thou Holy God. Be my brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death. Come with me in my death, come with me in my suffering, come with me as I struggle with evil. And make me holy and pure, despite my sin and death.” Every day, despite its location on the calendar, a still, small voice answers our cry persuasively here and now, “Behold. I stand at the door and knock.”
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Edwin Robertson, Ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).