Vantage Point

Never Mind the Mess, Trim the Tree

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I love Advent. I love anticipating and preparing for Christmas, spiritually and every other way. This year it brings a bonus: Advent will last four full weeks. That happens only once every five or six years.

My enthusiasm for a long Advent has nothing to do with wanting extra shopping days or more time for writing cards. I just like to savor the season. Usually, though, I arrive at the end of Advent feeling that I’m not ready for Christmas.

Last year, I learned how to handle that.

It was my first Christmas in my new apartment. The place was cluttered with stuff: boxes and bags of books, papers, memorabilia, household items. I was struggling with what to keep, what to discard and what I had room for. I decided, for the third consecutive year, not to have a Christmas tree.

On Dec. 23, I called my friend Vicki Horowitz. Her husband, Dan, answered the phone. They always used to come to my house to see my Christmas tree, and they invite me to their house one evening during Hanukkah to light a candle on their menorah. Our friendship is a light in my life.

Dan asked, “Are you having a Christmas tree this year?”

“No,” I answered, regretfully. “My living room is a mess.”

Dan said, “Oh.”

Just one syllable, spoken quietly and without judgment, but it cut to my heart like winter wind through a threadbare coat. In Dan’s voice I could hear the unspoken words about the importance of tradition and ritual, family and heritage.

The next morning, Christmas Eve, I set out to find a tree. At my first stop, the trees were scrawny. At my second, the salesman refused to sell me one because they were dried out. He took a tree and thumped its trunk on the ground, and a shower of needles fell like snow. As consolation, he gave me a trimmed, $30 wreath for five bucks. I tipped him and said, “Merry Christmas.”

Two more stops were unsuccessful. Finally I went to the same nursery where my parents bought our trees when I was a little girl. Miraculously, there was a perfect tree leaning against a rail. It was tall, full, majestic and expensive. We cut a deal; they were generous. I brought it home, and Danny, our janitor, set it up for me.

My Christmas-tree lights were too old to use. I bought four new sets so that I could make every branch glow. I unpacked the beloved ornaments—some dating to the 1940s—that my parents, who loved Christmas, had treasured. Among my own ornaments I found the one I made when I was 13, the tiny Baby Jesus with his blue flannel swaddling clothes and blanket, rocking in a walnut shell suspended from a thread.

When I was finished, the tree was magnificent, the most beautiful Christmas tree I’d ever had. Vicki and Dan came to see it, and they loved it. I did, too, even though it was standing and shining amid the clutter of my not-yet-settled life.

But doesn’t that reflect what Jesus does? He doesn’t wait until we have our lives and our souls and everything else straightened up. He does what he did 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem: He comes right into the middle of the mess, into our hearts where we still struggle with sin and doubt and pain and regret. He shines the light of his love on all of it and shows us how, if we let him, he will transform it, and us, and fill us with hope and joy and the peace that only he can give. He doesn’t say that we can leave the mess there, or that the journey will be easy, but he does promise that he, God-made-man, will be with us, helping us, loving us, every step of the way.

My apartment, and my life, still need work, but I’m cleaning out the corner where I’m going to put the tree.

May your Advent and Christmas be filled with the light of Christ.

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