I grew up in a Dutch immigrant family. When I was born, my family had been in Canada for only two years, and during the early years of my childhood, the Dutch identity was quite strong. I grew up speaking Dutch, though by the time I went to school, English had become predominant in our home. But the differences went deeper than language. Not that I realized this at the time – young children don’t reflect on how their family operates, they just accept it as the way the world is – but looking back, I realize that even though we were light-skinned like all our neighbours, in many ways we were quite different from the other families around us.
One of the times of year when the differences were most evident was in the way we celebrated Advent and Christmas. Although my family was not particularly devout, during December we had regular times of singing Christmas carols, using an Advent calendar as a worship centre. The Advent calendar in our home had nothing to do with chocolate. It was made of coloured cardboard (bristolboard) with a wax paper backing, and consisted of a Bethlehem scene, showing the shepherds on a hillside overlooking the town, with a dark blue sky full of stars. The stars were cutouts, so that at the beginning of Advent there were no stars in the sky, and then on each day of Advent another cutout piece would be removed and another star would appear. There were larger stars for the four Sundays of Advent, and the largest one of all – situated right over the stable in the Bethlehem scene – was reserved for Christmas Eve. In the evenings, the family would gather around the Advent calendar, the youngest child would remove another star from the sky, an older child would light a candle behind the calendar, we would turn out most of the lights, and the light from the candle would shine through the wax paper backing in the places where the cutout stars had been removed. We would then sing a few Christmas carols by candlelight. We did this most evenings during Advent, culminating in a special family Christmas Eve service of readings and carols.
As a young child, I didn’t fully understand why we were doing this, but I used to find it tremendously exciting. The beauty of this observance awakened a sense of wonder in me, and a simple understanding of the gospel message was planted in my heart through the Christmas carols – some in Dutch and some in English. Of all the Christmas customs that I grew up with, this is one that I have been able to pass on to my children. Marion and I have had an Advent calendar in our home for years, and when our children were growing up our family, too, used it as a focus for family worship every December.
This morning, the Advent calendar is in place in our home, ready for the annual ritual. There are no stars showing yet in the night sky, and the cardboard scene is stiff and stands up easily. As the cutout stars are removed day by day, one of the side effects is that the whole structure becomes more flexible because it is full of holes. The star-shaped holes are what make it beautiful – they allow the light to shine through – but they also mean that the calendar has to be handled with care and a gentle touch. At the beginning of the annual ritual, the whole structure is fairly strong and stable. It can stand by itself with no problem. By the time Christmas comes, and all the cutout stars have been removed, it is full of holes and therefore much weaker and more flexible. But if the candles are lit and the light is allowed to shine through the cracks and holes, it is also far more beautiful than in its original state.
This morning it occurred to me that my life is like that Advent calendar. If I want the light of Christ to shine through, I have to be willing to let the cracks and holes in my life be uncovered. We all like to present the image of ourselves as strong, self-assured, in control, with our weaknesses well covered up. But Jesus exalts those who humble themselves. If I succeed in convincing those around me that I am capable, knowledgeable and in control, they may be impressed. But if I humble myself and allow my cracks and weaknesses to show, without pretending to be more than I am, then the light of Christ can shine through my life in increasing measure, bringing glory to Jesus and hope to those around me who also have lots of cracks in their lives.
For Christ’s sake I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)