I love Advent. It is my favorite season. My favorite part of the season is not the actual Christmas day, but the whole leading up to part – waiting and preparing. Maybe because growing up in an immigrant family, this time of the year was the worst for me. My family wasn’t familiar with the American traditions of gift giving, Christmas tree decorating, caroling, or even going to church. While my friends were visiting grandparents and cousins, my family clung to just the four of us. Advent was a stark reminder of all the sacrifices my parents made so that my sister and I could have a better life in America. Their Advent was about waiting and preparing so that we and the generations after us can birth a bright future that would make all the sacrifices worth it.
This Advent season has me reflecting on Advent with a different perspective. Lately, I feel like it is more Good Friday than a season preparing for birth. In October, our family dog of nine years passed away due to cancer. My sister’s dear friend was just diagnosed with breast cancer. A seminary friend of my husband’s passed away last week from a rare form of cancer. And today, I learned that Cindy Bolbach, the moderator of the 219th General Assembly of PCUSA has been placed in hospice care after a good fight with cancer. All this makes me question what are we preparing for? What am I preparing for?
Most nativity scenes picture baby Jesus born in a tranquil, serene, and sterile atmosphere as if Mary and Joseph had been preparing for this moment the whole time. But if you think about it, death surrounded them as well. The travel back to Bethlehem was not an easy one, let alone a woman about to give birth. King Herod had placed an order of death on all the male children. Giving birth in an unsanitary stable placed high risk on a healthy delivery. And what would Mary think if she had a glimpse of that fateful day when her soon-to-be baby would be dying on a cross. Would her preparation for his birth be any different than her preparation for his death?
When preparing for birth, there is so much hope in the process – hoping for a healthy baby, a certain gender, to be a family, to be a mother or father. In 2007, I was pregnant during the Advent season. It was my second pregnancy. My husband and I were thrilled because we had difficulty conceiving the first time. When we called my in-laws to tell them the good news, we were told that my father-in-law had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Joy and sorrow all in one phone call. Birth and death spoken in one breath.
Advent was a long season – preparing for another child and preparing for treatment for my father-in-law. A few weeks later, my father-in-law went in for surgery. It was successful – really successful – cancer-free successful. As they told us the good news, we told them that we had lost the baby. Joy and sorrow all in one phone call. Birth and death spoken in one breath.
And isn’t that how life is? Preparing in faith. Waiting in faith. Uncertain of what it will birth.
At the beginning of 2012, Cindy gathered a few of us together – ruling and teaching elders, liberal and conservative, racial ethnically colorful, women and men, and young and old. It was important to her that there was a range of diversity. In that one-day gathering, she asked us one thing, “What are our hopes for the Church – the PCUSA church?”
I love Advent. Mostly because for my family there is much healing and redemption in this season. As my sister, my parents, and I watch our children play together, anticipate seeing each other, and get excited over family Christmas traditions, we are healed – all the sacrifices, pain, and loneliness. Watching their grandchildren, safe and secure and happy, is what my parents hoped for. It was hope they couldn’t imagine, see, or realize, but now that it is in front of them, I see healing in their eyes, and mine as well. So much death that they lived through – death of parents, dreams, dignity, and comfort – has birth much hope for my children and generations after them.
Cindy has much hope for this church. Many caught a glimpse of that hope during her moderatorial term because it oozed out of her. Her hope has birthed much hope in me even in the midst of continued talks of dying churches, churches leaving, and uncertainty of the denomination’s future. As I prepare for the loss of such a wonderful leader of the Church, I also prepare myself to hope and be open to the spontaneity of the Spirit of what is birthed from that collective hope.
Death may surround me, but hope leads the way.