– Lissie Baker
The Grace-on-the-Hill house is in the full swing of Advent – we have our “Story of Christmas” Advent calendar that we read every night, a gorgeous Advent wreath on the living-room coffee table, snowflakes painted on the front windows, garlands across the front porch, and a pint-sized tree in the corner by the window. Yet though the tree, decorations, and expected fanfare feel like the Christmas season, something about this year is markedly different: I, a lifelong church-goer and cradle Episcopalian, now realize I’d never really given Advent much thought or personal reflection. I don’t mean this in a negative way. Of course I’ve understood the excitement surrounding the coming of Christ, and the gift of God becoming one of us, to live and suffer with us – I just hadn’t developed much of a personal understanding around waiting, and what this anticipation means for us as Christians. However, a conversation with Hannah about last week’s formation has had me thinking about our role as servants to others, specifically in the context of anticipating Christ’s birth.
Last week, during our Wednesday formation time, all six of us went to Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School (my work site) for chapel, which David and I actually miss every week since Wednesdays are set-aside for us as a household. It was really meaningful for the two of us to further understand our school’s spiritual life, and for our roommates to see how the spirit works at AJCES. For her sermon, Bishop Susan Goff told us the story of a young man named Alfonso:
Born in Mexico, Alfonso’s family died tragically in a house fire when he was very young. Burned from head to toe and horribly disfigured, he spent the majority of his young life in orphanages where he was mistreated and abused because of his appearance. Finally a teenager, he ran away and lived in the woods on his own, emerging several years later in a small town. In this town, he discovered there was a boys’ school run by a kind and gentle headmaster. Taking a chance, Alfonso threw himself at the feet of the headmaster, asking for a home by reciting the words of Las Posadas – the Mexican tradition that reenacts Mary and Joseph’s journey from household to household as they were rejected time and time again. The headmaster, knowing his students would jump first to judgment, told the young men that they would not accept Alfonso as one of their own. The students were shocked, insisting over and over that they would love him. Hearing this pledge, the headmaster brought Alfonso forward to the boys, who were shocked by his appearance. Yet, sure as they had made their promise, the youngest boy at the school stepped forward, held Alfonso’s hand, and called him “hermano” – brother. There, Alfonso was finally loved and accepted.
As Bishop Goff shared with us, she knows this story to be true because Alfonso himself shared it with her and many others at the school where he is now headmaster. It was moving to see how our students listening, quietly watching Bishop Goff’s face and taking in the message she shared: in Christ’s birth, we are promised new life in His love, shared by our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ – no matter our perceived shortcomings, our struggles and transgressions, or how dark the world may seem to grow.
In the past, my Advent has been spent with family as we Christmas shop and travel to see aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. In college, it was spent preparing for exams and, between tests, busting my butt at the restaurant where I’d worked since freshman year. And now, living in Oregon Hill and working for the Episcopal Service Corps, I actually have the time and headspace to reflect on what Advent brings: a promise of love and of mutual service in the Body of Christ, a promise that realizes itself every day. Advent promises that, despite life’s hardships and the ever-deepening darkness of winter, Christ is born to us all the same.
Commuting to work in the morning this time of year is especially peaceful. As I drive to work in the mornings, sometimes with David (always listening to NPR) or sometimes by myself, I’ll turn east onto I-64 and take an arching on-ramp that cuts by the old Shockoe Hill Cemetery. The sun is usually coming up right over the top of the flyover, a pleasant shade of peach. Following the sunrise and driving onto Nine Mile Road, the morning fog and pale light paint a deceptively peaceful quiet over the surrounding housing projects. As I drive in, I think about the day ahead of me: it will be both exhausting and uplifting, full of triumphs and disappointments. But I am needed there, needed by my brothers and sisters who live in Creighton and Fairfield and Mosby Court. Despite life’s difficulties, my students can count on their teachers, on David and I, and on the many volunteers who come in every day, ready and willing to serve AJCES in whatever way we can. As children of God, we are promised that no matter the growing darkness, Christ is always born into our lives. We are promised love in the earthly Body of Christ, and I am called to keep and realize that promise for others.