Thanksgiving is over, and now the race is on:
malls, catalogs, commercials, coupons, advertisements. Buy more.
Buy better. Buy faster. Get there. Do it. That—s what Christmas
preparation is all about, isn—t it?
Christmas is parties, presents, a break from school.
Christmas is a little bit of family and a whole lot of memories.
It—s blockbuster movies, released just in time for the holidays.
Christmas is lines, lights, ribbons, wrappings, carols, red
This is just what we do in December. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Same old feeding frenzies and gift-giving hysteria.
Oh, yeah. Christmas has a religious part: nativities, prophecies,
angels, mother and child. The cast includes shepherds, wandering
easterners, stars, Emmanuel—all is calm, all is bright stuff.
It—s hard not to feel a bit—well—packaged about the whole season,
isn—t it? What else could it possibly be besides what it has
always been? Isn—t that what it—s all about?
That—s up to you to decide. That—s the message of this Youth
Update. Your Advent can be anything you want it to be. It—s
a great big opportunity all wrapped up in a tidy four weeks.
The marketplace is begging and pleading and groveling for your
attention. It—s so easy to give it to them. This issue offers
some alternative ways for you to think and act.
One of the wealthiest men in the world was once asked, —How much
is enough?— His answer? —Just a little bit more.— This is what
the world wants you to feel and think and want, especially during
But there is another way.
More than any other time of year, Advent is an invitation, a quiet
one compared to the others you—ll receive before Christmas,
but a captivating one. Advent bids us listen to a most engaging
story, better than any novel you—ve ever read. The season summons
us into the collective memory of the people of God, a memory
so deep and powerful and rich and sweet that it has dazzled
generation after generation. As one of God—s people, it—s your
memory, your story, your opportunity.
Out of Amnesia
Yes, Baby Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary, who was engaged
to the carpenter Joseph, who had a dream that he should
marry this girl, after she—d had a visit from an angel, who
also visited Zechariah, whose wife had baby John the Baptist,
who talked a lot about Jesus coming, who then
did come as a baby. That baby was said to be the Son of God.
You—ve got the story down pat, right? So. We—ve told the story.
Let—s get back to the parties.
Aahhh, but that isn—t the beginning. No, not the beginning at
all. It starts way before that. The whole invitation of Advent
is to remember, to see again the presence of God among us, here
from the beginning.
The Christmas story is the climax of a tale that weaves in and
out of life after life. Jesus, whose other name, Emmanuel, means
God-with-us, is a single human being who puts together in one
life all the sparks and glimmers of God-light scattered over
thousands of years.
It—s that Spirit of God who moves among us—bringing about great
things, like the rise and fall of nations, and small things,
like supplying wine for a wedding party—who gives us the answers
to life—s questions. These are not —old people— questions. These
are questions I know you are asking. Who is God? Who am I? What
am I here for? What is God like? What does God expect of me?
What is life for? Where am I going?
So many of us suffer from amnesia, a deep spiritual forgetfulness.
We have forgotten that Spirit. We have forgotten God—s presence.
We have forgotten the countless extraordinary experiences that
so many people have had—experiences that shock and amaze us,
experiences that comfort and console us, experiences that challenge
and shake us...experiences of God.
And God is waiting, oh so patiently, to give us
those experiences again in the storytelling, in the sharing
of memory, and most particularly in our own experience.
History or Experience?
So, then, why don—t we have those kinds of eye-openers like the
people in the Bible had? I mean, it would be a lot more interesting
to listen to their stories if we had things like that happening
That—s Part Two of the Advent invitation. You can read the stories
till you know them by heart, but that isn—t the same as remembering
them. Reading about them is merely keeping them out there, in
the realm of history or fantasy. To remember the old stories
is to claim them as your own, the gifts of God for the people
Let me give you some examples. I—m going to tell you a few stories
from Scripture. Pretend they—re Christmas gifts. You can accept
these gifts as interesting but ancient legends or as a quaint
record of the past. Or you can open them up to see how
they are your story, too.
— Take the story of Abraham and Sarah, a pagan couple in a city
somewhere near the Persian Gulf. They had family; they had gods;
they had careers; they had plans. And then God chose Abraham
to be his friend, his confidante even. The couple took God up
on the offer and left everything behind.
God promised old man Abraham and withered woman Sarah the impossible—that
they would have as many children as there are stars in the sky.
And they believed him. Now, what happened to these two can be
just a story about a couple of wanderers who had pie-in-the-sky
aspirations. Or what happened to Abraham and Sarah can
be a recollection of God—s voice deep within your soul, a summons
to look at the stars and believe God no matter how impossible
— Take the story of Hannah, a Jewish woman who was considered
a total failure because she couldn—t have children. Her husband—s
other wife had sons and daughters, along with a high-and-mighty
attitude that made Hannah—s life miserable. And then God listened
to her heartbroken prayer and gave her a most extraordinary
What happened to Hannah can be just a story about what happened
to one woman way back when men had more than one wife and women
were nothing without children. Or what happened to Hannah
can be a recollection of God—s voice deep within your soul,
an encouragement to pray and a whisper of hope when your heart
— Take the story of David, the youngest child of a large family.
His big brothers were warriors in the king—s army and were in
a serious battle with the enemy. Cute little David, known primarily
as a shepherd and harpist, decided to take on the enemy—s Number
One hit man, Goliath. Snort, said his brothers. But David put
his confidence in the Lord, heaved a stone skyward and took
down the giant.
What happened to David can be just a nice kid—s story about the
boy and the giant, a bit like Jack and the Beanstalk. Or
what happened to David can be a recollection of God—s voice
deep within your soul, a stirring of courage when you face your
own giants and a promise of strength when others make you feel
— Take the story of Jonah, a Jewish man who heard God tell him
to go one way but who went the opposite direction. No way was
he going to preach to those pagans about God. Sorry, he had
other plans, a cruise perhaps. Then God moved the sailors to
dump Jonah overboard and directed a fish to swallow him. And
there in the solitude of that belly, Jonah had plenty of time
to think more clearly about God and about himself and about
right and wrong.
What happened to Jonah can be just a story about a stubborn old
man and an ocean tempest and some evil sailors and a killer
whale. Or what happened to Jonah can be a recollection
of God—s voice deep within your soul, a cool, moist breeze blowing
away your dark moments of rebellion and fear.
Each story presents the same opportunity, the same invitation.
They are memories, not history lessons.
God did not just decide out of the blue to come and be with us.
No, God has been with us, talking to this prophet, making friends
with that couple, giving special help to this mother, teaching
that teenager how to fight giants. Here and there. But now,
in Jesus, God is always here. Not just for the prophet. Not
just for the king or the queen. Not just for the strongest or
the holiest or the bravest, but for you and me as well.
When we enter Advent and accept its invitation, we receive the
clues that tell us about God and where to look for God in our
own lives. As we indulge in some old-fashioned storytelling
and work through the chapters until we reach that chilly night
in Bethlehem, we may discover that our expectations for the
season have been rather puny.
Overeating, staying out late, sleeping in, getting stuff—that—s
a pretty stunted expectation. Even the finer parts of the season—family
time, shopping for your little brother—s stocking, attending
the church Christmas play—can be a shortsighted focus for this
time of year.
When we plug ourselves into the big picture we find that Jesus
is not just a special baby, but the One who brings together
all the promises, all the hopes, all the visions, all the risks,
all the miracles, all the dreams of all the people of God. He
is your promise, your hope, your vision, your risk, your miracle,
your dream. This is your story.
So, if you—re interested in something else, something much bigger
than anything you—ll find in a mall, stop, look, listen. This
year, let go of prepackaged expectations and open yourself up
to anticipation. If you—re really ready to look for God, believe
me, God is ready for you. Anticipate God—s presence, and you
will discover it. Take 10 minutes each morning to see how one
of God—s people discovered God—s presence.
Check out the box on the last page, where I—ve listed one person
(or one couple) for each day of Advent. Read a bit of their
stories. Ask yourself: What challenges did they face? What risks
did they encounter? What dreams did they have? Why are their
stories my stories? Or, choose one character that you find most
engaging. Read that character—s whole story, a bit each day.
Listed next to each character you will find a visual aid, some
tangible part of the story that can help you take their stories
deep inside. For instance, in the story about Isaac, a ram becomes
the last-second substitute for his sacrifice. On the day you
read that story, think ram. Not Random Access Memory, but a
wooly ram to symbolize the very special memory of a boy whose
father loves God immeasurably and whose God loves the boy immeasurably.
See a ram in your mind and let that image trigger the memory of
the story. Doodle rams on your notebooks. See rams in the clouds.
Tell the story of the ram to one other person. Make the last
thing on your mind before you go to sleep be the image of that
ram, that gift of God that saved Isaac—s life.
You can keep track of the Story behind the stories by making a
Jesse Tree. This is an ancient tradition that has helped generations
of people prepare for Christmas. Jesse was King David—s father
and King David has always been the symbol of Israel—s hopes
for a messiah, a king above every king. The prophet Isaiah talked
about the —root— and —branch— of Jesse when he prophesied about
the hope of the Messiah. So we make a Jesse Tree to remind ourselves
that God—s plan has been forever and that we—re part of it.
There are as many ways to make a Jesse Tree as there are people.
Do it your own way. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
— For each image—apple, rainbow, ladder, whale—draw a simple picture
or write a simple poem.
— Use construction paper or posterboard and make tree ornaments
of your images.
— Tape a sheet of newsprint to your bedroom door or refrigerator
and record your drawings or poems graffiti-style. Put a heading
on it: My Family Tree.
— Keep your Jesse Tree in your diary.
— Record each drawing or writing on an index card; punch a hole
in each corner and keep them on a Jesse Ring. Or collect them
and mail them each week to a friend or relative.
The important thing is to find a way to track the presence of
God, day after day, until you find God—s presence fully in the
Baby born on Christmas morning.
In Mary—s song, the Magnificat, she sings, —God—s mercy is from
age to age.— Jesus is the proof of God—s ageless mercy, the
love and tenderness that go on and on and on...all the way to
you and me. It—s a gift you can—t afford to overlook.