4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. (Luke 2.4-7)
I love the Advent season – the preparation, the waiting, and the countdown to Christmas. I have probably heard the story of the birth of Christ a thousand times. Joseph, being a Bethlehem resident, travels with a very pregnant Mary from Nazareth to register in his home town. Growing up, I always heard much praise given to Joseph for being such an upstanding man for staying by Mary’s side, especially after immaculately conceiving and becoming pregnant. Also, it couldn’t have been easy to travel the 70+ mile trek with a donkey as your mode of transportation. After becoming a mother, I had greater empathy for Mary – greater appreciation for what an expectant mother would be feeling, a greater insight into the preparation and waiting process until the baby’s birth, and surely it couldn’t have been a picnic for her riding that donkey all that way. Towards the end of my pregnancy, I could barely get in and out of a car, let alone hoist myself up on a donkey and balance my unproportioned belly. And the poor donkey. I know that they are able to carry an impressive amount of weight, but I’m sure even the donkey’s back was feeling the load of carrying the Christ baby – literally and figuratively.
Growing up Southern Baptist, I was unaware of the Advent season. It wasn’t until I became Presbyterian that I began to fully appreciate this season of preparation. It is a wonderful time to meditate, reflect, and focus on the true meaning of Christmas – hope, love, joy, and peace. I always had a passive outlook on the Advent preparation – waiting like I would be waiting for my doctor’s appointment in the waiting room. However, my recent tree cutting adventure gave me a different perspective on the season of Advent and the act of preparation and waiting.
For the past five years, we have gone up to Toiyabe National Forest with friends and family to cut down our own Christmas tree. Usually 8-12 families gather at a house for breakfast and then load up the kids and dogs in the cars. We caravan up to the mountains to our prime tree cutting location. Every year there is a surprise glitch. Last year, it didn’t snow much and therefore changed the look of the landscape. Not only were the roads incredibly bumpy and rocky therefore causing my dad to bust a tire, but we missed our turn and had to settle for a less desirable location. This year, we felt more prepared. We got into our parade of cars. My little Subaru appeared impotent compared to the Dodge Rams, Dodge Durangos, and Jeep Cherokees. Nonetheless, it was an all-wheel drive and had survived the trek many times. By the time we got to our prime tree cutting location, we thought we had hit all the surprise glitches of almost careening off the cliff due to the 2-3 ft of snow; pushing 2 trucks that got stuck in the snow; and 2 boxers attacking my dog. Little did we know that we had a long day ahead of us.
After everyone had found and cut their tree; had eaten hearty bowls of chili, fried rice, and potstickers; sledded down the hill a couple of times, we loaded up the caravan and headed out. We soon met up with another caravan of about 5 families. They gave us the first set of bad news that trucks were having difficulty getting up the hill and around the cliff. As the hours of daylight began to diminish, serious talks of strategizing our escape out of the mountains began to take place. We had three options: 1) build a bonfire, huddle up, and sleep through the night in 0 degree weather; 2) gather the kids and dogs and begin hiking the 2 mile uphill trek to the nearest town; or 3) go deeper into the woods which was flatter and safer, but had more snow and was a good 10 miles until the nearest town. By this time, we had been up in the mountains for 6 hours and had maybe an hour of daylight left.
The mothers stayed in their respective cars with the kids, texting back and forth what we were going to do with the kids. To cut the tension, a little inappropriate humor of whose butt cheek we would have to sacrifice first kept us calm and rational. The guys were busy scoping out the area and brainstorming the best possible solution. We decided to go the safe, but longer route. The trucks with chains would lead the way. We would divvy up the walkie talkies to communicate any problems. And most importantly, we would leave no one behind. The key to driving in 3 ft of unpaved snow is don’t stop, keep going, but not too fast. By 6.30pm, we finally saw city lights. Except on a Christmas tree, I’ve never seen such prettier lights in my life – a sign that we had made it. We quickly saw other lights . . . headlights. The park rangers and police were waiting and asking for updates on how many people were still in the mountains. It was about 8.30pm before the last car load made it out of the mountains.
This tree cutting adventure took place on the first Sunday of Advent. Not what I would call a relaxing, meditative, or reflective way to start the Advent season. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe we are to be actively preparing and waiting for the birth of hope, love, joy, and peace. This experience made me realize how important prayer, mode of transportation, and community is in the act of preparation and waiting. As my little Subaru was bumping up and down and carving its way through the snow, my repetitive prayer and mantra was “Dear God . . . ” I didn’t even finish the prayer. All I could pray was “Dear God . . . “, hoping that Jesus could read my mind and fill in the blank. The sense of danger and survival wiped my mind clean of any coherent thought. I don’t know if Mary and Joseph were fully aware of the danger that lurked around them. I’m sure Mary’s motherly instincts must have intuitively picked up on the danger that was caused by Herod. In any case, I’m sure they had more eloquent prayers or at least more detailed prayers during their journey to Bethlehem. But the point is they prayed as they moved. There was no stopping my little Subaru. If we stopped, we were stuck. Praying for hope, joy, love, and peace in our world won’t materialize unless we are moving to make it happen. The mere birth of Christ alone can’t bring heaven to earth, but our activity to embody the gospel in our community and world can make hope, joy, love, and peace a reality.
One of the biggest surprises was how awesome my little Subaru was in the snow. While huge SUV’s and trucks were fishtailing and getting stuck in the snow, my little Subaru was steady, fearless, and didn’t slip or get stuck once. Much like Mary and Joseph depended on that donkey, we depended on that car to get us to safety and it did. As I reflect on all the ups and downs in my life, it was my faith that got me through those times. My faith in God was my mode of transportation that I trusted to carry me from being stuck in despair and through the process of “This too shall pass . . .”
Lastly, like everything else we believe in our reformed tradition, preparation and waiting shouldn’t happen in isolation, but in community. It took a collection of ideas, strength, fortitude, and solidarity for us to get out of the mountains safely and successfully without panic and harm. Although Mary and Joseph traveled alone, their was a community of saints that witnessed the birth of Christ. The animals provided company and protection. The shepherds provided witness and acted as messengers. The angels provided celebration and praise. And the magi provided worship, gifts, and secrecy. Therefore, this Advent season, I will be actively preparing, actively waiting, actively praying, and actively participating in the story of the birth of Christ. I’m not quite sure what that activity will be, but I have faith that if I keep moving . . . and striving to do my part to exemplify hope, love, joy, and peace around me . . . then as a community of God’s people, we can truly experience heaven here on earth.
The next day, we had to go back up the mountain to retrieve my brother-in-law’s abandoned truck. In the daylight, the snow was beautiful and breathtaking. It’s amazing how the same mountain that was ominous the day before was a breathtaking snapshot of God’s creation – heaven on earth. I’m grateful for the community of friends and family, my trusty mode of transportation, and most of all the gift of prayer that got me through that tree cutting adventure.