I wrote this account of our family Advent in 2018, shortly after it occurred. It finally hit me that a Kodak, picture-perfect moment with our large family would never happen. God had something better planned. Reality!
Advent conjures up the very essence of a spiritual, magical, enlightening moment. It’s what places my focus on the heart of Christmas, the gift of everlasting life through my Savior, Jesus Christ. My house twinkles with lights and sparkles with glittery garland everywhere. Stockings hanging above the fireplace bring as much warmth to my heart as the logs flickering below. Our Advent wreath is the stunning centerpiece, with tall tapers waiting to be lit. The nativity manger shares the spotlight with figurines placed in precisely the right places adoring the baby Jesus. A giant black Bible lays open, and the fireplace casts a warm glow over the entire room. A Christmas storybook sits begging to be read. Everything is perfectly prepared, waiting for our children, along with their children. The lighting of the candle begins it all…I wish.
Having just finished dinner and the opening of birthday gifts for one of my daughters-in-law and our eldest grandson, the idea of the first night of Advent happening is diminishing fast. I go for it.
“Everyone, get in here now! It’s time for Advent.” I stand poised in front of the twenty-seven stockings crowded across the fireplace wall.
“Not again,” someone moans.
“Ha! Ha! Mom does this every year, and every year she gets mad when it doesn’t turn out.” Julie, our middle daughter, the diva, laughs.
I smile, pretending not to be offended, but nobody believes me.
“Come on, Mom. It’s all fun,” she says.
I look around. Babies cry, toddlers wrestle with one another, grandchildren laugh, and sideways glances are exchanged from all our adult children. I use that term lightly. Many sprawl about the living room’s perimeter and adjoining dining area; few want to join the inner circle. My sisters step over the mess and take their seats.
The nativity manger sits center stage on the coffee table. Two-year-old Eli has just finished re-arranging it. Mary is turned upside down, and baby Jesus is nowhere to be seen but found later under the sofa. The remains of dinner plates, half-filled glasses, and wadded-up napkins flank my Advent Wreath. Maybe we should have cleaned up first.
I think of our baby, JoAnna, who is away at university. She always lights the first candle—the candle of Hope. My heart clutches a little and then some more. Out of our eight children, three of them, including JoAnna, and their families are far away. David & his family are not with us. He’s our eldest son on the mission field in Japan with his wife Tomo and our three young grandchildren. Also missing is the life of the party, Daniel. The Professional Board gamer, video blogger, and comedian son and his sensible wife Shannon, along with our bouncing off the wall grandson, Brucie. Living in Washington, they come down for holidays about every other year.
I’m thankful, but it’s hard to believe that almost half our family is absent, and there still is not enough seating for everyone present. Those that are here begin to settle down.
A cell phone rings. Just great. Everyone checks their pockets, and one is finally answered. It’s passed around for all to quip and comment to whoever is on the other end. It eventually reaches me.
I leave my seat to reach for the phone.
“Mom! Finally, I got you. I missed the cafeteria tonight, and I’m hungry.” It’s JoAnna.
“Here, Mom, she wants you.”
“Ok. I’m starting Advent right now. Can I transfer the money a little later? I’ll lose everyone if I leave now?” I feel like a bad mom for not running to my computer to send money.
“Yeah, that’s fine. Some of us are going for fast-food later. Thanks, Mom. I love you.”
“Love you too, sweetie.”
Clicking off, I turn to sit down, but my favorite overstuffed chair and little ottoman have been taken. Looking around, I see that the only spot left is on the hard tiled stoop in front of the fireplace. I grab the Advent book and ease down. My knees creak, and loud chattering escalates once again.
“Bruce!” I yell over the noise. “Can you open us in prayer?”
Sweet silence. They respond, except for giggles and parents shushing their children.
My husband thanks God for our family and asks for a blessing upon our night. Nine-year-old Aki, our eldest grandchild, has the honor of lighting the first candle since our youngest child JoAnna is not with us. Giggling, Aki struggles to strike a fire and talk simultaneously.
“I light the candle of hope,” he finally says.
Those words still move my heart to remember why we do this every year. The assured hope of salvation and that all of us would be ever grateful for God’s gift and never, ever forget.
As I begin to read a short devotional, it’s as if my mind is traveling down two different tracks. I appreciate the words I read, and yet I worry whether my family is listening at all. Hope prevails.
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great gift; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned,” Isaiah 9:2.
Prompted by the devotional, I ask, “Aki, why do we light this candle?”
Trying to contain his laughter, he glances at his aunts and uncles. They are no help. Why this is such a funny question, I have no idea.
“Uh, because it gives us hope?” says Aki.
“Close enough.” Accurately, the candle reminds us of the promise that a Messiah would come, bringing peace and love to the world. I don’t correct him. I’m just thankful for the participation.
Next, it’s time for scripture reading. I look around, remembering the times when I used to see open bibles in hand instead of cell phones. I adjust.
“Open your cell phones to….’ I call out assigned bible verses, and the kids open their bible apps.
Jennifer read Isaiah 9:2-7. She is our most serious child, and I can always count on her. A few others follow, and my husband finishes the reading with an actual holy book in hand. There are a million Bibles in the house, and it astounds me that only one has made it into the living room tonight.
In a split second, I glance at the questions listed in my new Advent book and contemplate whether to ask or not. I look up at the crowd before me….Nah, I may lose them.
Gazing around the room, it’s still quiet. Awkward but calm. My eyes rest on Darren, Julie’s husband, the only real singer in the family. He was the lead singer of the Worship Band at his college, and his voice mesmerizes and transforms any audience. I love superior vocals.
I smile and ask, “Darren, will you lead us in Silent Night?”
Darren is cradling our newest grandchild in his arms. One-month-old Rhea, Jon, and Maki’s youngest of four. Our son-in-law is swaying the baby as if he’s practicing for his and my daughter’s expectant new arrival. He stops and looks at me as he’d been asked to sing the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl…which, of course, he’d love to do.
Eyes open wide, he asks, “Oh, do we have song sheets?”
Every year when I pull out the booklets, everyone passes them on to the next person.
“Uh, you can have mine. There aren’t enough to go around.”
It gives them a good excuse for not singing. I didn’t bother to unpack them yet this year.
“One verse, Darren,” I plead. “Let’s just do the first stanza.”
His angelic voice rings out, and everyone joins in. As I listen, I’m amazed that he can transform our tone-deaf family into a decent choir, whether it’s happy birthday or O Holy Night. I just wished I’d closed my eyes. I see snickering, six-year-old Leon shooting grinning eyes at Josh, our youngest son, just graduated from college, a wannabe MMA fighter, who’s barely able to contain his laughter.
Oh, did I mention this mature young man is engaged to be married soon? His fiancé squeezes his arm and gazes at him adoringly. He stifles laughter. A family sing-along is quite entertaining, but we do it every year. Go figure. Others sit with their eyes downcast and shoulders shaking, trying to hide their amusement but still singing. As Silent Night comes to an end, I think ahead, Story or no Story? I may be pushing it…
“Ok,” I announce, “I’m going to read the story, ‘If You’re Missing Baby Jesus’, one of my favorites.”
“Ohhh.” Groans galore and more snickering.
“Are you going to cry again, Mom,” Julie says for all to hear.
I roll my eyes.
“I’ve heard this story before…” says Josh
“Every year…” another whispers.
I bite my lip and tap my fingers against the book. As my lips become white, I see Josh sit up straight like he’s in a firing squad.
He blurts out, “No. I like this story.” Grinning from ear to ear, Josh searches his brothers and sisters. He’s seeking support.
Ignoring him, I begin, “If you’re missing Baby Jesus, by Jean Gletzen.”
Other than baby Rhea crying for a diaper change, everyone is quiet and attentive. My son Jon leaves to change the baby, and his wife, my daughter-in-law Maki’s mouths, thank you, while Jon gives a thumbs up and smiles.
As I read, I’m thankful that I can’t see all the family faces as my nose is buried in the book and lost in the pictures. I love this story! It seems the family does, too, as not a snicker, murmur, or snore is heard. I finally read, The End, and my sister Sandra, her face shining, claps one or two times. My sister Eve, with a glisten in her eyes, brings her hands together but looks around and stops as no one joins them. Yet, all faces smile back at them. They love their Aunties.
I look over at my husband, “Well, Bruce, shall we pray youngest to oldest?”
We have a long tradition of family prayer whenever we gather together for birthdays and holidays, practically every weekend. We try to end our time together by praying for one another, beginning from youngest to oldest. It’s a time for us to connect more intimately, express our cares and concerns, and encourage one another to place our trust in Jesus.
Logistically though, with 27 or more people gathered together, those heartfelt prayers sometimes last 45 minutes or more.
Raising my eyebrows, I look to my husband. He stares back at me with a look that bleeds, “Seriously?” Ok, Pastor Bruce, I say to myself. Well, he is sick this year. His flushed red face says, he’s not feeling it. I nod and turn towards the kids.
“Kevin,” I call out. “would you like to close us all in prayer?” I can always count on our eldest son-in-law. His lilting Jamaican accent somehow adds something special to our prayer time.
“Uh, no,” he says.
What? Did he just say no? I ask myself in disbelief.
“Kevin!” My daughter Jennifer yells at her husband.
“What? Sammy can close. He’s the eldest son in the room,” says Kevin, our courageous, take-charge firefighter.
Our son Sam is ten years his junior, and decidedly Kevin has concluded that Sam should be the man tonight. Quiet bantering ensues between the firefighter and the police officer.
“Ok, fine. I’ll close.” Sam, our ready and able Deputy Sheriff, never moves from his linear reclining position on the floor. He clasps his hands, resting them on his chest. Jocelyn, his wife, pats his arm and bows her head.
He prays, and my eyes tear up. Beautifully spoken prayers with clarity and sincerity have never been vocalized by Sam before. He is a man of few words. My heart is indeed filled with hope.
Everyone says, “Amen,” and we’re finished. I am in awe. I didn’t lose them! The grandchildren all scramble to blow out the candles. Two-year-old Hugo finally spits at the lone flame, signifying the end of Advent.
“Wow, Mom. You should do this format every time. This was the best Advent ever,” says Julie.
I nod and stand to replace my Advent books, tripping over toys, wrap, and ribbon. “I know,” I reply over my shoulder, “I skipped the questions and the –”
“Yeah. Do it like this all the time,” Josh interrupts.
Arisa, my cousin’s daughter visiting from Okinawa, who I’m sure is totally overwhelmed, begins to tidy up along with my daughters. Our little four-year-old granddaughter, Aliyah, my dream girly girl, digs through the toy chest as if on a hunt for buried treasure. The two toddler grandsons fight and scream over a baseball, Sammy wrestles with Aki and Leon, and the noise escalates.
I smile and look at Bruce. “We did it!”
That spiritual, magical, enlightening moment happened. I’m thankful, joyful, and oh so delighted. Though by no means picture-perfect, nonetheless a night filled with the hope of Jesus, the promise of the world, alive and present amongst us.