For decades, my mother had a photograph, taken of my younger brother Clancy and me, aged about 4 and 6. Every winter, sometimes at Christmas, she would take it out and we would all look at it together and remember, and laugh. I’ve no idea where the photograph is now, but I don’t need to know: I remember it as if it were right here in front of me.
It shows the two of us, sitting on the steps of our front porch, waiting for it to snow. Now, this was in the deep South, mind you–I grew up in South Central Arkansas, not far from Little Rock–so you have to take the phrase “waiting for snow” in context. In the photo, there is no snow on the ground. There is no snow falling. In fact, there is no snow anywhere in sight. There is only brown grass, dry pavement, and a gray sky. Probably the temperature was all of about 36 degrees. But don’t tell that to the boys in the photograph. For there we are, bundled with enough clothes and hats and mittens and boots to survive a month in Antarctica. And sitting there next to us in the photograph, no less, are two Redflyer sleds, metal runners resting uncomfortably on the asphalt like fingernails resting on a blackboard. There we are, waiting, waiting. Not knowing–or more likely, not believing the cautionary words of our parents–that snow takes time to pile up, and sleddable ice even longer to form. After all, it’s not easy to explain snow to children who have only ever seen rain, or ice to boys who only know about dirt.
Waiting for—snow!! It is impossible for me to explain how thrilling that word was for two Southern boys.
Advent–that sacred season that traditional Christians still celebrate for four weeks before Christmas–is about waiting. The very word means “arriving”. The waiting, of course, begins with the Promise, the Forecast, if you will, of what is to come. What is yet unseen, not yet even understood, but what is Foretold anyway.
Now, if I remember, I think that it did not in fact snow, and while I am sure we were very disappointed, isn’t it interesting that what I remember to this day is not what I felt when the storm didn’t come, but the boyish thrill at that first news days earlier that it might?
And this paradox–that the Promise produces joy long before the Fulfillment ever comes–is the first of two truths of the Season worth pondering. The Foretelling, the Promise, produces in us a kind of faithful waiting that is in itself full of joy and thrills. How many of us can recall such Promises–the news that we are pregnant, the sight as a child of a new present under the tree, the first pages of a well-recommended book.
And now, as the days of Advent yield to the days of Christmas, so the joy of waiting in the shadow of the Promise yields to the even greater joy of the fulfillment of the Promise. That is the second truth of the Season to remember: The fulfillment of the Promise is greater even than the promise of the Promise. The book is even better than the friend says. The child brings joy beyond even the dreams of the pregnant mother. But not only better, but always very different, too, from what we expected, or imagined. The Miracle is greater than the Promise precisely because it surprises us and because it causes us to see with new eyes.
A few years after it didn’t snow, I learned that the miracle of a snowfall was infinitely greater than anything I could have imagined or hoped as a little boy. As it happened, a few years later after life had taken a bad turn for my family, we kids were replanted in the Rocky Mountains, in a home literally lodged right up against the foothills of Pike’s Peak, where we met real snow for the first time. And over the next eight years I heard the forecast and experienced the miracle of snow dozens of times again. We even had several White Christmases…four inches, ten inches, fifteen sometimes, and once 38 inches of snow in three days; but no matter how many times it snowed, I never got used to it, and it was always different than I expected.
I can remember being 16, 17 years old, and I would wake up in the winter every morning at 5.00 without an alarm clock and bolt up in bed, glancing out my window to see if it had snowed during the night. If it had, I was out of bed–jeans, sweater, down coat and boots thrown on– and in three minutes, I was out the door with a John Deere cap on my head and Buckwheat, my St. Bernard, slobbering by my side. We would jump into my jeep–I would jump and he would step– and head up into the mountains, where for two hours before school, I would drive around, walk around, and sometimes just sit around, in the midst of snow so heavy you couldn’t see the tops of the pines but so light and dry none stuck to your clothes. All just to be in it.
Because in the snow, somehow, I always saw things more clearly. Even with zero visibility, I could suddenly see. My problems–and at that time in my life they really were fairly serious–were suddenly no longer overwhelming. Things were not as bad as they seemed, and in fact, all was somehow okay. In fact it was good. In the snow I knew who I was and to Whom I belonged, and so knowing, life, for a few moments, did not press so close, for I was standing in the white, windy presence of God.
And now, as we move into the days of Christmas, we move from the waiting to the reality. We will see again, as if for the first time, we will hear again the voice of Christmas, speaking softly a message so profound that it takes us twelve days to consider it:
All is not as bad as it seems, and indeed, if you can just see clearly, well, then Glory to God in the Highest. That is the wind that rustles through the leaves of the Gospels, especially in the words of the Angel to the dumbstruck sheepherders: Fear not. I bring you good tidings of great joy. And the shepherds think: the Deliverer of all Israel… is an illegitimate son of a poor peasant girl and a no-name carpenter from some god-forsaken place called Nazareth? Ah but it is not as it appears, thunders the Angel: Glory to God in the Highest.
All is not as you think. That was the nightmare turned dream of Ebenezer Scrooge, who carried his own chill about him and left his old stairwell unlit, because….”darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it”……until Christmas Past, Present and Future quite literally scared the hell out of him and he was born again in the dead of night, deep in the fog of an English winter.
You aren’t seeing very clearly. This is the news brought to desperate George Bailey by the persistent little Clarence, angel, second class: listen to me, George, I’m your guardian angel and I tell you– you have a wonderful life. Look around you at the family who treasure you, the friends who love you.
Things are not what you think: that is the shock that cracked the heart of the Grinch so that “it grew three sizes that day”…and not even Jim Carey, try as he might, can ruin that story…”Christmas came…it came without ribbons, it came without tags, it came without packages, boxes or bags…..”
It’s not the way it looks; so explains Linus, gently in the face of aluminum Christmas trees, a commercialized beagle and a little sister with an extra long list. “Sure, Charlie Brown, I’ll tell you what Christmas is all about…..Lights please….for there were in the same country shepherds…….”
When the Miracle comes, we see that the fulfillment of the Promise is even more stupendous than the promise of the Promise, and everything is different than we thought: valleys are exalted, mountains and hills made low, crooked places are straightened, and the rough places made plain.
In the meantime, of course, all of us are children sitting on a bare concrete step, surrounded by brown winter ryegrass and a sled….waiting….
But sooner than you think, it will snow. Then we will finally know the soft surprising thrilling burning magical mystical dreamlike touch of the Divine like a snowflake on our cheeks. We will know who we are and to Whom we belong, and we will stand in the white, wintery, windy presence of Eternity. And it will be as far above anything we might now imagine as is a Colorado Christmas beyond the realm of two boys from the South, waiting for snow.