10 In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” 12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.” 15 “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” 17 Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
The season of advent is precious to me. I grew up in a church that marked the start of Advent with an Advent Festival-- a craft fair for kids and families. We made Advent crafts. We made Advent wreaths out of pine boughs, pyracantha berries, wire, Styrofoam and candles. We made Jesse trees out of wood to track the genealogy of Jesus and simultaneously mark the days until Christmas. We made Advent calendars out of construction paper and stickers. And we ate cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.
Each year I made an Advent wreath out of fresh pine boughs and wrangled my candles into their holders with wire. Each year I ate cookies to my heart’s content. Before dinner. In the middle of the afternoon. Those are warm burnished memories from childhood. I lit the beautiful weekly candles on my Advent wreath counting down until Christmas. I read Advent devotions to combat a culture and a family which celebrates the birth of Christ with consumerism, rather than a focused spirituality. From Advent I learned anticipation is joyful. Christmas day always felt like a letdown; the anticipation was better.
My memories of Christmas day are not so warm; those memories are filled with discomfort and unease. I celebrated the birth of Christ with a family of mixed believers and nonbelievers. They prized perfection and preservation of family tradition over spirituality at Christmas time. And despite the actual joy of Advent, Christmas, as a child, made me sad and anxious. My family desired the Christmas perfection sold in magazines and holiday commercials: perfect meals, perfect presents, and perfect decorations. Yet perfection is unattainable and thus Christmas left me wanting. Christmas day had none of the joy and mess of the Advent Festival. I longed for something else... something different.
It is in this pain and longing that I connect with Hannah. Hannah was the wife of Elkanah. Elkanah had two wives: Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah did not. Hannah had not conceived. In the ancient world her ability to bear children determined her worth. To make matters worse, she lived with Penninah who not only had the thing that Hannah most coveted, a child, but provoked Hannah until she cried and would not eat While traveling to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice to the Lord, Hannah confesses to God that her grief had become an “affliction” (1 Samuel 1:11). Thus, if she conceived a child she vowed to dedicate her child to the Lord.
In this same way, I had to turn over my painful memories of Christmas. I had to confess to God that others’ expectations of Christmas day were burdensome for me--that they stole my joy. And I had to return to the thing I longed for most that light of the Advent candle marking anticipation--reminding us that God is indeed the creator of both light and darkness. God began the world with light; out of the darkness He created light. Advent reminds us that we live in the duality of both light and darkness, and that we live in a world that is hungry and waiting for God. Like Hannah we can cry out our pain, and in the midst of our darkness, our discomfort, our pain find God’s love, light and promises.
"Silent Night". Arrangement by Cathy Moklebust. Used with permission CCLI License, CCLI License # 234253
There are many things that make the Bay Area different from the midwest. So, when I invited the youth group to take part in one of my favorite traditions, I shouldn’t have been shocked when they hadn’t done it before. What is this tradition you ask? CAROLING. I LOVE caroling. Every single year, my family bakes fresh cookies and takes them to neighbors, friends, or strangers who might need a little extra love. We knock on the door and then break into song, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas!” Seeing people break into smiles and listen in surprise is one of my favorite parts of the Holidays. May we all be creative this season in bringing extra love and cheer to those who need it most!