Key of David
“Are we really doing this?” my husband asks from the driver’s seat, damp and chilly. My resolve begins to waver, but the wail rising from the back of the van nips any change of plan in the bud. “I want to get a Christmas treeeee!!!” It may be raining out, it may be the Monday evening after Thanksgiving, the tree lots may be completely picked over, but we are going to get a tree. We settle for Lowe’s where a few of the trees — the old, the crooked, the less sellable by the day — are under an overhang out of the drizzle, which means they won’t get the inside of our van or our house too wet.
Why did I insist we do this right now? We could have waited till the next shipment of freshly cut trees on Wednesday. We could have gone the following weekend. We could have shopped the tree lot at the local garden supply store. We could have spent an afternoon in the mountains at an actual Christmas tree farm. But tonight, the rainy Monday night after Thanksgiving, is the night. Advent has begun. Or is about to begin. I am not quite sure, but I think tomorrow morning is the day. Our church denomination celebrates Christmas, but we don’t tend to use church calendar words like “Advent,” “Lent,” “Epiphany.” I was once part of a wonderful church body that didn’t celebrate the Christian calendar holidays at all. Sermon texts on the book of Leviticus did not pause for the warmer fare of Christmas and Easter because we remember always that Christ has come—every day of the week, every week of the year. Year-round, God has done the miraculous, every day the debt has been paid, not just on one week, or in one season.
There was something to that. There was some freedom, too, in escaping the emotional rigmarole of the music, the garlands, the tinsel and bows, and all the things that drive the Grinch past the brink of madness. But my world is different now, and my small children’s cries for festivity and decoration and my own need for light shed into darkness mean Christmas will come to our house. So we were going to get a tree. We will get a tree, right now, tonight. In three and a half weeks, we will head north for the big family holiday, and I don’t want to lose any time making this Advent season . . . what exactly? What is it I intend these three weeks to be?
I have been reading about Advent. In one place, I read that we decorate trees and hang lights because this is a season not just of light, that great and beautiful light, but of light in the dark. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That resonates. There is so much darkness. Dark, evil acts being done in other countries driving people from their homes across dark, cold waters in thin, damp boats. Dark, evil acts being done in our own country, in big, awful ways with guns, and in small, selfish ways with fearful, mean thoughts and words, and in cold, empty ways in our own chilly, closed hearts, in our absence of action or love toward our neighbor. There is so much hurt, out there and in here. And in this moment, at the beginning of the week after Thanksgiving, when the sky grows dim by five o’clock, I aim to push back at the night, or at least warm it up, in this little space that I own, this home that I manage for our family, for the three people out of all the world who live here with me.
With this intention, I have been making an Advent calendar, slowly stitching embroidery floss to felt. It will hang like a banner across our wall. We will see it when we walk in the door. It took me some time to decide what it will say. Joy to the world? Glory to the newborn king? Jesus Christ is born today? But no, Advent is not only about what has happened; it is about what we still need to happen. It is about waiting, about that quiet, anticipatory, mildly uncomfortable moment before the song starts up, the lights come on, the guests arrive. Advent takes place in the dark. In the Advent season—my rendering of it, at least—we are remembering the long historical moment before the Prince of Peace got here. And we are remembering that we are still waiting for him to get here again. There may be eager expectation, but creation still groans. The dark remains very dark: the people on boats, without homes, without loved ones; the lives lost to strangers waving guns in what should be safe places; the stoniness in my own heart that declines to care about my neighbor. “Have mercy,” we cry. The wail rises from my daughter in the back seat of the car; the pleas resound from as far off as an island in Greece. “Come, Lord Jesus.” Quickly. Make this right. Ease up. Give us peace. For heaven’s sake.
I looked and found the right words for my calendar from deep in the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”:
O Come, thou key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
The Tuesday night after we get the dry tree at Lowe’s—the first night of Advent by my own estimation, if not according to official church calendars—I sit at my dining table in the bedtime quiet, cutting felt for this calendar I am making, the rhythm of measure-and-slice, measure-and-slice like a kind of Protestant rosary. Consider my blessings, calm my thoughts, peace, peace, peace of Christ to you. It is night, and the day has been long. The children are finally in bed, and my husband, walking by the table, asks, “Do you want to watch something?” I tell him, “Yes, but in a minute,” because I am in a hurry. I want to finish cutting these squares so I can stitch them together tomorrow and get this good reminder hanging on our wall.
I keep cutting, and he goes upstairs, and then I hear Christmas music coming from the bedroom, and I know he is watching Piano Guys on YouTube, and I know in this moment that he is happy and he doesn’t mind that I am still downstairs, so I pull across another sheet of felt, red, soft, wool felt. And I look up, and suddenly, I am happy. The brightly decorated, thinly branched tree, and the felt and the quiet and the kitchen that opens to the living room in this warm, safe house, and the children nestled all snug in their beds, and my husband relaxing. And I am sliding the rotary cutter down a thick strip of rich fabric, and there are toys strewn across the rug, and there is a wall in the dining area that needs to be patched and painted, and there are the grimy window shades the old owner left behind. It may not be the heavenly home I am waiting for in the long term, but right now, it is just right, and so good that it feels unfair. There are people across dark seas on cold waters, endangering their lives in hopes of finding better ones, of finding some light instead of darkness, and this seems unfair, very unfair, what I have here. In this late moment, there is not much I can do but keep cutting and waiting and hoping, and I do that, and the words that will go on my calendar repeat themselves over and over in my mind: “Come, thou key of David, come.” And the prayer is for me, and for my family, and for the world.