Advent stillness reveals the true gifts to be given
By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today
The turkey sandwiches were made, and hot chocolate filled our thermoses. We piled into the car and drove off for a family tradition: our day-after-Thanksgiving trek into the woods.
We were making good time until we found ourselves stuck in mall traffic. Brake lights flashing in the stop-and-go traffic were not my idea of a holiday light show, but a holiday light show it was, as shoppers made their way to pay homage to the retail gods on the unofficial pagan festival day known as Black Friday.
While I had no desire to be part of that crowd going to the mall, my 10-year-old self grew anxious, wondering: If those parents were at the mall and my parents were heading to the woods, when would my presents be bought?
I was famous for my gift list. Just ask anyone in my family. (On second thought, don’t ask.) When the Sears Christmas Wish Book arrived in the mail, I was the first to grab it, noting the page numbers that my Christmas “must haves” were on. I always had more on my list than my siblings.
But today there would be no shopping. There would be no poring through the bible of Christmas toys galore. Today we were going into the woods to observe the season that the world around us seemed to have forgotten. Today was about getting into an Advent state of mind, slowing down and searching for the God moments on the journey to Christmas.
My parents felt that there was no better place to be on Black Friday than in the woods. I usually agreed with them, but that year my 10-year-old self could not stop thinking about all the items on my Christmas list that were back at the mall. A baseball glove, doll clothes, a paint set.
After some steep climbing, we came to an opening in the woods where rock formations provided us with the perfect dinette set. We began eating our lunch in quiet, drinking in the mountain views along with our hot chocolate. I, however, was still mentally adding to my Christmas list. A dollhouse, dollhouse furniture, ice skates.
My mom’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Look at this view. This is the only gift I would ever want,” she said to my dad. I looked around. It was beautiful on top of that mountain — oh, yes, hiking boots and a sweatshirt needed to be added to my list.
“Donna, are you still thinking about what you want for Christmas?” my mom asked. Before I could answer, she asked another question, “What can you put on your list that would make someone else smile?” It was a WWJD kind of question before WWJD became trendy.
I didn’t know what to say, but soon, with the help of my mom and dad and sister and brother, a new Christmas list was being written in the woods that day. It was a list that put the focus on helping others, from donating to national parks to volunteering at the food pantry to taking four items off my list, adding up the cost of them and giving the money to children in need.
I still remember our day-after-Thanksgiving treks in the woods, and I can’t thank my parents enough for instilling in me the importance of taking quiet time in Advent. It has helped me to prepare for Christmas differently, seeing that God never asked for us to buy so many presents or to run ourselves ragged in baking cookies, decorating our homes and attending parties. (Running ourselves ragged happens in the church, too. We fall victim to over-programming and over-decorating, thus overshadowing the stark beauty of Advent, when four simple candles around a wreath is plenty enough light to guide us to the Christ child.)
And when my 10-year-old self begins emerging, as she sometimes does, it’s time for me to pack a turkey sandwich and head into the woods for an Advent hike.
It is there in the stillness I can rework my Christmas list to be more in line with the one my family made so many years ago. It is there in the stillness I remember another list written long ago by a prophet named Isaiah. His read:
Bring good news to the oppressed. Bind up the brokenhearted. Proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.
Now that’s a good Christmas list, don’t you think?
Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today and a rural pastor living in Vermont. She once offered Advent hikes to her congregation, but no one else joined her. There were other Christmas events planned every weekend in the small village she served. She still packs a turkey sandwich and heads into the woods on Black Friday — alone, with her Bernese mountain dog.
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