It’s almost time to take the Christmas tree down.

This saddens me. Our Christmas tree turned out beautifully this year, having evolved over the years. When we were first married, I was adamant that only things that came from nature (albeit artificial versions of them, if necessary) would hang on the tree. Pine cones, berry garlands, Christmas balls covered in red berries, dried apple and orange slices, raffia, icicles, and little red cardinals were among the items in the boxes I brought up from the basement every year. As I’ve refined my tastes I’ve begun to include grape vine balls covered in glitter, ornaments that look like ice-carved stars, white snowflakes in various sizes, and my own personal favorite, dozens of glitter-coated balls in red, gold, and brown. A beautiful angel in a white flowing dress finishes the display.

Why do I enjoy the tree so much this year? Perhaps the reason is something very complicated. I could view it as a parallel to our marriage, evolving and changing, maturing and relaxing. Or perhaps the reason is something as simple as grace.

This morning, as I sit in the dark family room enjoying this tree one last day, I think about something I observed earlier this week. I hold in my mind the image of hundreds of birds, moving in concert, as the sky turns from afternoon blue to dusky orange to deep red, and then to darkness. This image is something I’ve seen many times before, and every time I see it, it takes my breath away. This display of nature, of hundreds, maybe thousands of birds, their bodies appearing as shadows against the late afternoon sky, is grace. The birds, their wings churning up and down, fly as one large body from one side of the road to the other, a giant cloud of life and movement, until they stop to fill all the branches on three or four tall trees. Here, their silhouettes on the bare winter branches make the trees appear to have sprouted thousands of leaves.

The beauty of the first tree is that I had a hand in creating it. The beauty of the second tree is that all I had to do is pay attention. In nature, God created this amazing display for me and anyone else who noticed. Today, I ask God to continue to whisper, asking me to take notice. I resolve to listen to God’s call to appreciate the little blessings in my life each day.

joyful hope

What did you go out to the desert to see?

-Matthew 11:7

Advent is the season of patience. It begins, it seems, as we wait for the days to begin to get longer. For me, the darkness that comes earlier and earlier in the evening is sometimes unbearable. And yet, when I drive home after a long day of work and darkness surrounds me, the beautiful Christmas light displays seem to light my way home.

When I consider the people in my life who are living saints, one of the qualities that I find in several people is joy, a theme that returns again and again. My dear friend whose hair is returning after months of chemo and radiation never seemed to be without at least a tiny bit of joy in the face of her illness; a twinkle in her eyes; an appreciation for all her gifts. Another friend who works tirelessly for the homeless in her community does every act of charity with a joyfulness that inspires me. Even that perfect stranger that I saw at the mall last night who was joyfully singing along to the piped-in Christmas carols had an air of sainthood about her.

In Advent, we wait in joyful hope. But does the joy come first? Am I joyful as a result of the waiting? Or do I have a joyful view of life that is only strengthened and increased when I contemplate the birth of Christ? Our God, the one who became man, wants our full flourishing. As I wait in joyful hope, I ask myself: What do I go out to the desert to see?