It was supposed to be the surprise of the century! My sister Sue was hitting a landmark year on Thanksgiving Day (I won’t say which year, but she’s old enough to get social security and young enough to enjoy it!). Mom had planned to spend a few weeks visiting her in Hawaii, and unbeknownst to Sue, I was going to show up and surprise her so we could celebrate in style. Teaming up with her sons and close friends, we’d made all sorts of fun plans. Joe was coming a few days after me, and we were all going to whisk her away to spend Thanksgiving in a lovely hideaway at the beach--a birthday she'd never forget.
This is the way our family rolls. Last year, mom, Sue and I traveled to Lithuania to do the same for my older sister Carol, who ministers to graduated orphans there. Loving and supporting family is a value my parents deeply ingrained in all five of us kids, which is why what happened next threw us into a tailspin of epic proportions.
Early one Sunday morning we received a call that my younger brother, Chris, had suffered a large stroke and was in the hospital. Over the next few days it would become clear that he was completely paralyzed on his left side, and would be hospitalized for some time. Within a few days mom knew she could not travel to Hawaii, and to be honest, I felt I couldn’t either. But after lots of conversation and prayer, we all agreed that celebrating with Sue for this birthday was more important than ever. And so I went, bearing gifts and greetings from all the family I had to leave behind. It was truly bittersweet.
The trip is now a memory and we celebrated well. I know Sue felt loved, honored and treasured, and being a part of that was a great joy for me.
When I got home a few days ago I jumped right back in at the hospital—working with caregivers and family to help my brother get what he needs, to shower him with love, and help plan for the future, a somewhat daunting task.
As I pondered the season of Advent that begins tomorrow, I was struck by the juxtaposition of my experiences over the past few weeks—celebrating and struggling, grieving and giving, laughing and crying, planning and waiting—the list goes on. I can’t help but think that in the end, this is what advent is all about. The word itself means “arrival” or “coming” and so we celebrate Jesus’ coming in three ways—as a baby in a manger, as our future king, and, most importantly for me—as the Presence that sustains and carries and makes life not only bearable, but immensely joy-filled, even through pain.
Advent reminds us to celebrate, indeed gives us permission to rejoice, even when, or especially when the circumstances of our lives are fraught with struggle or suffering. When we don’t know what the next day is going to hold, we celebrate the reality that our Lord came as a babe in a manger, setting himself up to experience every struggle humankind could ever know. When we feel like our dreams have been dashed or our hopes fragmented, we celebrate the truth that we serve a King who is good and powerful, and will one day make all that is wrong, right. And when we feel like it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other, we celebrate the very real presence of Christ who lives within our souls and loves us with infinite passion.
Making advent meaningful
Here are a few ways to make this Advent season especially meaningful:
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Tricia McCary Rhodes
Author of 7 books and a professor for Fuller Theological Seminary, Tricia specializes in helping others experience God’s presence through practicing soul-care.