Every year I do it to myself. Twice a year, every year. When the Church’s penitential seasons of Lent and Advent come up, I make these amazingly, stupidly lofty goals of praying and fasting and doing all the holy things with hardly any time wasting on Facebook and Twitter. I have these great notions of becoming a sort of suburban hermit with a husband and children who ideally sort of ghost about and take care of themselves for the duration.
Want to guess how my Lents and Advents usually go?
I think the only time I felt I “did it right” was the Lent that led up to my entrance to the Church. Man, that was a slam-dunk season of preparation, and so far, no other Lent or Advent has ever, on the surface, matched up in terms of glorious changes in my soul.
Or so I think.
Now, almost a decade away from that particular Lent, it’s easy to be swept away in the chaos and clamor of everyday life. My family has doubled in size since then, which makes pretending to be a holy hermit completely impossible.
But God didn’t call me to be a hermit, and so the graces He gives me during times of preparation more often than not come from the very people who make things like quiet spiritual reading impossible. Even more striking is when the lessons come from the ones I’m most concerned about.
I don’t think I’m alone in my worrying about my children acquiring a proper perspective of Christmas. I don’t think I’m alone in the hand wringing over the materialism promoted by the culture, or the concern that the kids will grow up thinking that “the true meaning of the season” is some vague Hallmark notion of time spent with loved ones rather than an authentic awe at the Incarnation. I worry all the time, but particularly during Advent, that I’m doing it wrong. That I’m not passing the Faith on to my kids in a way that is making any sort of real impact.
And every year, gently, oh so gently!, God shows me that I’m wrong.
One Advent, a couple of years ago, I’d put out our plaster Nativity set, which had been painted years and years ago by my grandmother. The kids, as they did every time, had to be told not to fiddle with the set, as the figures were some 30 years old, and none too sturdy. Most of the kids either listened, or were too young to actively disturb it, but my third child, Gabriel, was the perfect age to be too young to care about my prohibitions, while being old enough to figure out a way to reach the set. He was constantly sliding the ottoman over to the counter, and moving the figures more to his liking.
He’d give the figures voices while he moved them, and I remember the cow’s voice in particular was so funny that it would make me cry as I listened in from the next room before going in to shoo him away.
One day, I came into the living room to find all the figures arranged in a very straight line, like some sort of Incarnational conga line. While I stared at it, taking the scene in, Gabriel walked into the room, grinning an impish grin.
“Gabriel, what’s this?” I ask, gesturing toward the figures. ”Is it a parade?”
He smiles even wider but shakes his head. ”It’s a frain!”
“A what?” I say
“A FRAIN! A FRAIN!”
“Oh. A train? You made them a train?” He nods.
“And I made….um….her. The lady. What’s her name?” He points at Mary.
“Mary?” I supply, inwardly cringing at my inability to even pass on the name of Jesus’ mother to my children.
“Yeah. I made her at the front.” I look at Mary, right there in front. She was, oddly enough, wearing the ladder from the wooden crèche around her shoulders. I stare at that for a moment, trying to glean some meaning from it. Giving up, I address my son again.
“I see. Why does she have the ladder on her shoulders?” He begins giggling and clapping his hands now. His cuteness is killing me.
“She has that on because the king asked her to hold it. He asked her, and she said ‘Yes’!”
At this, he carefully (sort of) takes the ladder off Mary. “But she doesn’t have to hold it any more. It can go back.” He puts the ladder back in the stable, looks at the scene carefully, and turns to me seriously.
“Don’t move the frain, Mama. They have to get there.” And he walks off.
I think about that exchange every time I worry that I’m not “doing” Advent right for myself or for my children. I think about my son’s insight, that Mary was asked to carry a ladder, which is designed to move people up higher, and how we can all help others move up higher toward God. I think about my son’s gleeful enthusiasm about Our Lady’s “yes”, and how we can offer a faint, dim echo of that yes in our own lives.
And mostly, I think about how even if we don’t think we’re cultivating an ideal season of preparation in our souls, God is more than willing to work with the things we have on hand.
image: Detail of mosaic window, Ely Cathedral/ shutterstock