Lessons from the Manger: Prepare Inside & Out
Either Advent has come early or Thanksgiving came late this year. Truthfully, I think it is fair to say that both have happened. This year Thanksgiving was at the very end of November which meant that today, the Sunday after, is the very first Sunday of Advent. Most years, there is roughly a week break between the two which gives us a chance to change gears, gently swap out decorations and make a natural transition from one holiday season to another. But, again, that is not how it is this year.
As a result, we have had an interesting thing happen at our church. We are blessed with a wonderful, hard working, dedicated group of volunteers who come and decorate our church for the Advent and Christmas season every year. This year, with all of the work needing to be done before Thanksgiving and with all of them having other things to do the week of Thanksgiving like the rest of us, they wisely decided to start their task the week of November 18. This meant that when we all came to church last Sunday, November 24th, much of the Rotunda and a good bit of the outside of our buildings were already decorated for the season.
There was something about this that captured my attention. It was the wreaths hanging on the doors of the sanctuary that truly made me stop and think. I knew something that most folks passing by our church didn’t know. What I knew that most folks who passed by on West Main did not know was that those wreaths gave a false perception. For inside the sanctuary, nothing had been done as of yet to get ready for the season. The sanctuary was decorated on the outside but not on the inside.
Now, here is why I bring this up. I think this a wonderful image of one of the lessons of this season. Our job, as it relates to Advent & Christmas as well as to our lives in general, is to prepare ourselves inside and out. Yet, at the holidays this is not where we generally do our best work. We are good at the exterior preparation – decorating our homes, getting all of those gifts purchased, sending out our Christmas cards, running the gauntlet of Christmas parties, family gatherings and special events. But, truthfully, all of this falls into the exterior side of the season.
Yet, when it comes to preparing our hearts, our souls and our minds to receive this season in the very interior of our being we are often not so successful. Like our church, it is not uncommon for the decorations on the outside of our lives to offer a deceptive, false pretense of what one might find on the inside.
That is why I like our passage for today. It is one of the more overlooked texts of the story of Jesus’ birth. When Mary learns that she is going to be the mother of Jesus, she leaves her home and goes to live with her relative Elizabeth for a season. It is a story that is told quickly and vaguely and thus it leaves us wanting to know exactly why it was that Mary made this trip. Did she go just so that she could get away from those who would have made fun or her or questioned her pregnancy? Did she go to hide what was happening? Did she go because Elizabeth was also pregnant under equally unusual circumstances and thus she would understand? Or, did Mary go since Elizabeth was as much a friend as family and out of a need to be in the presence of someone who would love her and provide her space to be herself. My hunch says that the real answer is a combination of several of these and other things.
At the same time, I want to suggest that maybe there was another reason. Maybe Mary needed time to be quite, to think, to pray, and space to get her mind, soul and heart around what it was that God was already and was going to do in the future through her. Changes were happening in Mary’s physical appearance but maybe she understood in a way beyond her years that she also needed to go through interior changes to prepare for what was ahead and Elizabeth’s house offered her a good place to do this. It is almost as if Elizabeth’s home provided Mary the chance to be on a spiritual retreat just before the most monumental moment of her life.
So, how do we do this sort of work of preparing on the inside for Christmas? We might be fairly skilled at the exterior preparation but how do we go about this inside work. Let me suggest four ideas that are influenced at least in part by the work of several ministers and their congregations who have offered a resource The Advent Conspiracy which pushes against our tendency to wear ourselves out in these days without renewing our hearts.
First, we should commit ourselves to worshiping fully. At the heart of the Christmas story is the act of worship. To prepare inside is to be faithful to the work of worship in these days. Second, we should commit ourselves to daily prayer, scripture and reflection. There are numerous resources that will allow you to take a few minutes a day for scripture, a thought and prayer that keep us engaged in the season including the devotional guide we have at the church which you can pick up today and which begins today. Third, and here is where it gets hard, we should commit to giving more of ourselves and less of material things. Now, I love getting and I will giving presents and will do plenty of both just like you this year. But, what if we focused on giving more or our time and ourselves to those we love and stopped depending on material things to make us all happy in ways we know are not possible? And, fourth, we should commit to leading with love. At the heart of this season is God’s love for all people. What does it look like for this attitude to encompass us in these days?
Among the last lines of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas are these words…“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” Amen.