By Dan Bergen, PhD, MU Alum 2011
As restlessness steals my remaining early morning hour of sleep, I get up before first light, and throw on a sweatshirt in anticipation of some quiet prayer time. I turn in the darkness to slide my feet into my slippers, and my 5-year-old daughter startles me. Standing there, her blonde moonlit curls cascade over her shoulders, and down her nightgown, framing the soft contours of her face, and magnifying the glow of her eager smile.
Holding her stuffed bunny, and looking up at me, she asks, “can I go with you, Daddy?”
“I’m going to have some quiet prayer time. You may join me if you’d like.”
“Sure! Just one second.” She scurries off to her room, as I consider the loss of what I anticipated would be some individual prayer time.
She returns wearing her new Elsa shoes — dazzling in their sparkly-glittery, Frozen splendor, a little girl’s dream footwear. “Come on, Daddy.”
As we descend the stairs, me in my brown slippers, and her in her new shoes, she holds my hand. I ask God to bless this time between us.
We make our way to the living room, where I light a candle, and turn on the Christmas tree. “It’s dark,” she says.
“I know. Let’s wait for the light to come.”
I sit down in my chair preparing to pray, and she appears at my side with one of her favorite Christmas books. The Sweet Smells of Christmas has been passed down to me from my Mom and serves as a perennial staple in stirring both the memories of Christmas’s past, and the anticipation of Christmas to come. She snuggles in next to me, and we read the book, scratching and sniffing the various perfumed stickers, making our way through little bear’s scented anticipation of Christmas. Scenes of Mother Bear baking apple pie, and Father Bear cutting down the tree, carolers outside the window in the early evening snow, hot cocoa, and tree-trimming, all precede the joy of Christmas morning.
We finish the book, discussing what her favorite Christmas smells are, and what we are excited about this Advent season.
“Okay, sweetie, I am going to pray now.”
I retrieve an Advent devotional book to guide my prayer time and I return to the living room. Still sitting in the chair, the candlelight moving thoughtfully across her face, she asks, “will you read it to me, Daddy?”
I share the short reflection, which considers the thoughtful preparation for the season and concludes with the words of the song, People, Look East, written by Eleanor Farjeon, a devout Catholic, author, and poetess best known for her widely acclaimed poem “Morning has Broken.”
People, look east.
The Time is near of the crowing of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Guest, is on the way.
As I read the first verse of the song to my daughter, I consider the likely absence of guests at our table this holiday season and feel a sense of sadness.
Like many families this year, we have been forced to make difficult decisions regarding so many aspects of our lives. From schooling to travel, our weeks have been defined by uncomfortable conversations driven by phrases such as “that isn’t going to work;” or, “we won’t be coming.” For eight months, our family has huddled together, struggling through virtual learning, adjusting to remote work, sharing nightly meals, celebrating birthdays, and praying for an end to the pandemic. Millions of others have suffered the death of family members, close relatives, or friends, lost jobs, or persisted through the daily challenges of mental illness. Expectations have consistently been upended, and somedays, it feels difficult to cultivate hope in a time of such desolation.
And yet, as I approach the Christmas holiday this year, the stirrings of anticipation are still very real. We prepare our home, dress our mantle, and trim our tree; bake our pies, and sing our carols. We read Christmas stories, light candles, and set up the Nativity. I wonder if the darkness and desolation of our day-to-day experience living through this pandemic will permit the light to shine more vibrantly this year.
Perhaps our expectations will be exceeded.
Like a little girl dressed in her finest shoes, moonlit curls in the darkness, asking to join in prayer, as the sun begins to rise in the east, and we wait for the light to come.