We have a beautiful set of handmade Jesse tree ornaments at our house. Beginning in Genesis on December 1, each day we can place an ornament on our little tree, read a Bible story with our kids, and talk about the message of God’s love that culminates in Jesus, but has been told since the foundations of the world. It’s a wonderful routine to practice in Advent, for kids and parents alike.
It is December 15, and we have hung six ornaments. We hung four of those ornaments in one day, only reading the Bible stories for two of them.
The truth is, with kids ages 4 and 8, a routine like this is difficult for us. In the morning, our oldest has to be to the bus stop by 7:15, and our youngest doesn’t get up until after he leaves. Plus, adding something else to the craziness it is trying to get out the door seems insane. In the evening, because of the early rising, we try to get the kids in bed by 7:30. A little dinner, homework, and playtime, and the night disappears in a snap.
In theory, Advent practices sound amazing. In real life, they can be surprisingly difficult to complete.
What do we do when we fail at Advent?
One small detail of the story of the wise men visiting Jesus caught me off guard when I first noticed it.
When the magi arrive from the East, the first place they go is Jerusalem. Whatever is happening with the stars is really more like a map than a GPS. The wise men have an idea of where to go, but they don’t know the specifics. They assume since they are being led to a king, they should go to the palace. So they end up in a conversation with Herod about where to find the baby.
Herod doesn’t know. But he wants to find out. So,
When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied. - Matthew 2:4-5
The religious leaders know where to find the Messiah. And yet, when travelers show up looking for him, they don’t follow. Their spiritual practices have become an end instead of a means. The routines that were meant to help them learn about who God was became such a strong focus that they missed God when He actually came.
There are many wonderful spiritual practices that can become part of our Advent routines. Yet these practices themselves aren’t the goal of this season any more than Christmas trees or songs or shopping or any other tradition.
It’s human nature to judge ourselves based on our ability to successfully complete tasks, especially for someone like me who struggles with being an achiever. But this is not the point of Advent practices.
The point of Advent is to make space in our lives to recognize our longing for Christ. That sense of longing may come during a Bible reading or a candle lighting, but it may also come in times or places when we least expect it. If we get caught up in our sense of failure for not doing Advent right, we may miss the opportunities to connect with the longing of Advent when it does break into our lives.
Christ’s coming is not dependent on my emotions or actions or obedience. As was true thousands of years ago when Christ was birthed in this world is true today when there are opportunities for his presence to be birthed in my life. His grace has always been and will always be a gift, not a reward.
Our Jesse tree still stands prominently in our living room. We will do what we can to hang the ornaments and tell the story in these last 10 days before Christmas. I don’t know if we will get it done.
But maybe an incomplete Jesse tree tells the story of God’s love just as much as a full one. The empty spaces of an unfinished Jesse tree tell the story of a God who comes not because we do all the right things to earn His presence, but because He is the fullness of love incarnate. It’s all the story of His grace.
Like Christmas day in the story of the Grinch, He comes just the same. Somehow or other, Christ comes just the same. Christ comes without candles, He comes without tags. He comes without ornaments, readings, or bags.
This Advent, I am longing for a Christ that comes just the same.
Grace, grace, grace.