The Alarming Summons of Advent

Ready or not, joy breaks in.

I distinctly remember my first Christmas as an adult. A first-year teacher, I was tapping into all my reserves daily, with barely enough time each night to recharge for morning. The first of December caught me entirely by surprise. Wait, Christmas? When none of my ordinary obligations had any intention of subsiding for at least another three weeks? (I know — as a teacher, I was one of the lucky ones who actually did have a Christmas break to look forward to.) This was my first year in my own apartment, and I was looking forward to doing what I could to create some Christmas cheer. But not on top of everything else!

In the several Christmases since then, the sheer chaos of adulthood has subsided, as I have mustered up some life management skills. But the yearly shock of Christmas cheer has not. Confronted point-blank with the summons to rejoice, I invariably stagger. Even as a full-time homemaker, there is always some to-do item that resents being set aside. My messy office, my snowdrifts of mail, my kitchen in dire need of deep-cleaning — must they really give way to presents and decorating and eggnog on the couch? What about all my obligations to scrape together a good life, somehow, for myself and those who depend on me?

How can I rejoice, when I’m not done with what I have to do to make life worth living? Can there really be peace that I haven’t made?

Liturgical purists (a camp I often fall into myself) bemoan the way Christmas has overgrown the penitential season of Advent. We ought to take time to feel the darkness of the world (the thinking goes) and to immerse ourselves in longing, so as to appreciate fully the King come to set things right.

But I have been surprised to find, when I do jump feet-first into the Christmas spirit, that I have no lack of chances to repent. Because I do stumble, every time. I resent the intrusion of cheer into my anxiety. I trip over my own desire to make myself worthy of joy, to tidy my own little kingdom before making any visits of state to the Kingdom of Heaven. I forget that that Kingdom entertains no neighboring ambassadors. It sweeps all contenders away like a hurricane.

The call that I hear in the first brash strains of Manheim Steamroller, in the trumpets of those bombastic Herald Angels and the plaintive strings of Comfort Ye My People, is not unlike the final trumpet. It is joyful, but it is imperious, too. Above all, it is an interruption. It makes demands: we do not get to put our lives in order, because the King is passing by this instant. It calls us to walk away from a sink full of dishwater, knowing that we will not be coming back to the life we knew.

And so I will make Christmas this year, but I will also surrender to Christmas. I will yield before the interruption, caught with a mess in my closet and suds on my hands, and acknowledge that this is a holiday about what has already been done. Peace is mine because it is handed to me. Like the looming surprise of a lighted tree overshadowing the laundry, it stands patiently, a silent but insistent Event that has happened whether or not I was ready for it. And that is good news — worthy of all my imperfect joy.

Laura Trimble, of Durham, North Carolina, worked as an editor and English teacher before turning her full attention to raising her two little boys. She finds a spare moment here and there to practice writing and to chip away at the long list of books she’s always wanted to read.

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