I didn’t grow up with Advent. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to a staunch Protestant family and raised in the Salvation Army, there were no nativity scenes in our Christmas decorations, no candles, and no daily readings. There was scant time for contemplation as our December days filled up with acts of service.
As a family of brass players, several nights a week found us under streetlamps on snow-packed streets playing Christmas carols until our instruments froze. My mother didn’t play an instrument, except for her voice, a natural gift and beautiful. Instead, she went door to door in the neighborhoods, navigating icy sidewalks and treacherous steps, collecting money for the poor in a red plastic box shaped like the Salvation Army shield. Some years, she also worked at the office distributing the bags of food and toys her collections purchased.
Once I was old enough, I spent December weeknights and Saturdays standing on a street corner in front of Sperry’s department store, playing carols next to the red kettle. People always gave more when there was music. Michigan winters were brutal, and my hands, feet, and cornet continually froze, in that order. A quick dinner break found me at Woolworth’s counter, scarfing down a small bowl of dill pickle chips and a mug of hot chocolate; then, it was back to my frigid, windswept corner and my kettle. On days when it was too cold to play, I rang a bell. Or I was supposed to ring a bell, but the noise annoyed me, so I usually removed the ringer and went through the motions. It was a small rebellion, but people seemed grateful.
Looking back, I realize how meaningful those days were to me. We took music to the streets, nursing homes, and hospitals; it was hard work that cost us something. There was still plenty of time for family activities; that it was my dad’s favorite time of year made it even more special for us. But the most memorable times were the moments we served together, made music together, did something for others, knowing we were part of something much bigger than ourselves. Undoubtedly, these days formed my worldview and shaped my future more than I knew.
This flood of memories began this morning as I read the words of Teresa of Avila, an author I stumbled onto much later in life.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
Christ has no body now but yours.
Today, as I look inward, Christ turns my gaze outward to a world he loves. A prayer forms on my lips: I love you. I was born for you. What do you want me to do?
Those who are loved by God let his love continually pour from you to one another, because God is love. The light of God’s love shined within us when he sent his matchless Son into the world so that we might live through him. This is love: He loved us long before we loved him. –
1 John 4:7,9-10 from the Passion Translation