I have decided once again to participate in #AdventWord, the global online Advent calendar sponsored by Virginia Theological Seminary. Today is the first day of Advent and a wonderful day to return to my sadly neglected blog.
Unexpected is a strange and serendipitous choice for the first Advent Word of 2019. I call it strange because expectation is the very essence of Advent. In my many writings about my favorite season of the liturgical calendar, I have often pondered the appropriateness of the Spanish word esperar as the perfect expression of the Advent trinity: to wait, to hope, to expect. But now we are asked to reflect on precisely its opposite: not expectation (and its brothers, waiting and hoping), but its absence. And therein lies the serendipity of the choice.
For just yesterday, my husband, two dogs, and I returned from a Thanksgiving weekend excursion whose joys were, for me, in the realm of completely unexpected. Through most of my adult life, I held fast to the mantra that whatever adventures I might embark on, I would sleep in a bed at the end of each day. I have broken that pledge on a few occasions that admittedly offered unforeseen moments of magic–mostly sunrises and a few sunsets on the coastal plain and the coast of North Carolina.
However, the aesthetic and photographic joys were in spite of, rather than because of, the fact that camping was involved. Mostly, camping meant for me discomfort and unpleasantness. This time I opened myself with all my prejudices and vulnerabilities to the experience–openness was the key–and the unexpected pleasures were myriad.
I didn’t want to be saddled with the responsibility of looking after dogs, but those two troopers turned out to be a great delight. Lily revealed herself to be an expert trailblazer, always sure of the path even when I wavered about which direction to take.
I was somewhat sad about forgoing a bounteous Thanksgiving repast. But sitting around the campfire with peanut butter sandwich, a banana, and hot coffee with cinnamon turned out to be just the ticket for a satisfying holiday meal.
Most unexpected of all, though, was sleeping in a hammock. As if sleeping bag and tent weren’t enough torture to endure, this time Pavel decided I should sleep in a hammock. Compounding the doubtful nature of the experience was the weather forecast: 33° for the first night and 31° for the second. Yes, he did set up a tent in case the experiment didn’t work, but I vowed to be coöperative and to keep the grousing to a minimum.
So what does this camping trip have to do with Advent? I approached the promised adventure and quiet joys of camping with reluctance and even trepidation. In like manner, I walked through the doors of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church on Advent I 1996.
I didn’t even know it was Advent. After falling on my knees and crying out in anguish a desperate prayer–“Teach me how to live!”–I determined that the first step was to take my five-year-old step-granddaughter, Victoria, to church. I had so far kept for 23 years a solemn vow never to enter another church, but I decided that this venture into surrogate parenting required that I provide a moral compass for my charge. I promised myself with equal solemnity that I was there only for Victoria and that I would keep myself aloof from any suggestion of personal piety.
I had attended only non-liturgical churches previously, so the concept of Advent was new to me. I heard sermons about hope and expectation–a particularly memorable one illustrated by reference to the advanced pregnancy of a parishioner awaiting the birth of her second daughter. I joined the ragtag voices of the tiny parish making a joyful noise and sang along to the tunes of a tinny piano the haunting hymns that have henceforth become my Advent feast whenever I am hungry. I experienced for the first time the annual telling of the vast plan of Christianity narrated as the service of Advent Lessons and Carols. And I heard–I listened to–messages telling me that Jesus would come into my life if I simply opened my heart. With great reluctance, I did just that. And by the end of my first Advent, when my husband joined Victoria and me for our first Christmas-Eve service, I was ready to welcome the Christ-child into the world and Jesus the Christ into my life.
Accepting the unexpected warmth and comfort of the dogs and the Thanksgiving campfire and the hammock has reminded me this year of the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love of Advent that I accepted when I joined the little branch of God’s family known as St. Christopher’s in Garner, North Carolina.
Please join me in the renewed awareness–inspired by a serendipitous trip to the Great Dismal Swamp–that blessings come into our lives unexpectedly, but we can truly know them only as our hearts and minds are open to what might frighten us or hurt us–or change us. And so we begin this Advent season with a twist: Come, Thou Long Unexpected Jesus.