Our family has a tradition of reading a children’s storybook during Advent every year. The book is about a mother bear and her son, to whom she tells a bedtime story each night in December, in preparation for Christmas.
In the story, a young bear (obviously quite similar to the cub listening each night), sees a star moving through the sky and, from somewhere deep within himself, feels compelled to follow it. At first he doesn’t know what the star is or where it’s going, but as the journey unfolds, he meets others who tell him about a child being born in Bethlehem, who will somehow bring peace, healing and new life to the whole world.
Each short, daily chapter is an episode on the way to the nativity, in which the bear meets friends, struggles through hardship, faces fears and gains wisdom. In the last episode - meant to be read on December 24th - the bear arrives in Bethlehem and sees a gathering outside a humble stable, where a family is celebrating their newborn baby. Many of the characters he met along the way have also arrived, as well as all kinds of animals, and book ends with the young bear, filled with joy, approaching the manger.
It’s a quaint and charming tale, but because I’ve read it so many times now, the meaning in the story has deepened quite a bit for me. It’s a story that ends at the beginning.
The Christian gospel is so often characterized as faithful people learning to follow Jesus. Listening to his teachings, trying to imitate his example. But central to our tradition is this season of Advent, leading to Christmas. During this sacred time, we choose a spiritual living space in which we are waiting for this teacher, our guide, our healer, the Savior of the world, to arrive. As we wait, we are invited to ponder what it means to follow the Christ who is not yet here, and also to reflect on the reality, the abiding truth, that we may undertake what feels like a great journey, full of adventure and learning and pain and worry and setbacks that we have to push our way through, and at the end of all of that, we find ourselves at the beginning.
This is Advent. This is Christmas.
As a parent, I’ve often reflected on the journey of pregnancy – all the planning, the care, the worry, the expectation – and how the due date marked on the calendar feels like this moment of completion. All of our concern is focused on getting to a healthy delivery. And this should be our focus, of course! Yet, if we’re blessed to reach that goal, we discover that in that moment the journey of parenting has now fully begun.
In the Advent storybook, the little bear learns and draws upon a panorama of Christian principles and virtues, in order to complete his journey to Bethlehem. Things like generosity, forgiveness, service, peace and trust – things we rightly say that Jesus himself offers to us – the little bear relies upon these virtues to find his way to baby Jesus in the first place. It’s a parabolic way of teaching us that Jesus is not only our guide on the way. Jesus is the way, himself. Or maybe, the path of Jesus is what leads us to Jesus, who then leads us on the path.
Call that a paradox of grace or whatever you want, but I know it’s true.
And frankly, I’m good with Christmas being a paradox, because a paradox has a place for everybody, and that’s how Christmas ought to be. Some of us are old disciples, following Jesus all these long years, through many dangers, toils and snares, and we testify to the faithfulness and trustworthiness of Christ, as a guide and protector in every season. Others of us have never met Jesus. We may have heard a thing or two about him, perhaps even enough to stir a bit of hope within our spirits, but mostly we feel alone on a journey we don’t know how to complete, facing challenges we don’t know how to overcome. If we’re on the way to Bethlehem, God only knows when we’ll ever get there.
Meanwhile, every obstacle we climb past, every triumph of goodwill over violence and fear, every unexpected kindness from strangers, feels impossible until it happens, like light breaking into the deepest darkness. And we find a little sustenance, and we take a little rest, and we keep putting one foot in front of the other, on the way that leads to the one who will show us the way.
Because we haven’t even made it to the beginning, and yet, we’ve come so far.
That’s Advent, that’s Christmas. No matter who we are, or where our feet have located us, no matter our frailty or strength, our clarity or doubt, no matter how familiar or lost we feel, we are all on the same path. And the grace that has brought us this far, is the same grace pushing us toward this new life, swaddled and lying in manger.
The Table is a Christian Church in Davenport, Iowa, striving to move:
from greed toward generosity
from violence toward peacemaking
from isolation toward neighborliness
from fear toward faith
Worship Sundays at 5pm
Christmas Eve Service Tuesday, Dec. 24, 5pm
102 E. 2nd St. Davenport Iowa