March of this year was, like for many others, tough for me, and the ol’ COVID definitely shook things immensely. Since the end of January, I had been posted in Cusco, Peru for a study abroad experience, learning Spanish and taking in the Peruvian culture. During my spring break, about mid-March, my parents came down to visit me. They got into Cusco on Thursday, and we spent the next few days acclimating them to both the altitude and the culture, seeing some of the sights and tasting some of the Peruvian cuisine.
Like in the United States, things with the pandemic were going from bad to worse in Peru. By Sunday morning, my study abroad program had been cancelled, and it was strongly encouraged that all study abroad students return ASAP to the US. So, I planned to leave Peru with my parents on their original departure date of Tuesday. Easy peasy, right?
Of course, this story might not be worth reading if it didn’t get a little more exciting. By Sunday evening, the president of Peru offered a simple ultimatum to all foreigners visiting: either 1) get out of Peru by midnight the following day (ya know, roughly 28 hours) or 2) don’t. This latter point was especially scary since the president hadn’t released how long the borders would be closed. Now, if you don’t know, a huge chunk of Cusco’s economy is based on tourism, which means a metric butt-ton of tourists from all over the world flooded the airport in a panic and effectively scrapped any chances of my parents and I getting out. As of Monday, just five days after my parents arrived, we were trapped in Peru.
How’s that for “exciting”?
You may be wondering: “Joel, what in the world does this have to do with Advent?” Well, I’m getting there. See, living in Peru was one thing, but pretty soon after the initial shock had passed, the US government said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, “Worry not, Trapped Citizens. We are sending you an airplane to bring you home.” That simple gesture was super nice of them, especially since no other flights were entering or leaving Peru. However, it quickly became apparent that this promised flight wasn’t coming soon enough, at least by our standards. After the first day went by, and then the second, and then the seventh, I was starting to feel a little restless and a little discouraged. Some of my friends in the study abroad program managed to get out on that first day, and still others had been collected by the US government, yet my parents and I were still stranded without hope of salvation. It seemed every day was filled with false hope; we would get our expectations up, only for nighttime to roll around without receiving that Golden Ticket of an email.
This is the difference between the world’s promises and the Lord’s promises. We await the world’s promises with an anxiety that leaves us jaded; we await the Lord’s promises with an anticipation that makes us joyful. What the world promises ultimately leaves us hungry for more; but the Lord promises us, as shown by the woman at the well, water that will never leave us thirsty again. Friends, as we pass the near the end of our Advent journey, let’s stay focused on what’s important: liturgical-seasonally speaking, the Nativity of Emmanuel, the Incarnation of a God-with-us in all things but sin; yet even more generally, and more importantly, our relationship with Jesus Christ.
I say that our connection with Jesus is more important than Christmas because this relationship supersedes our celebration of the Nativity. If we don’t know Christ, then Christmas is about más, about getting more gifts and more food and more time off school. But we are seeking to know Christ. So, this Advent, will the Holy Family find room in the inn of our hearts, or are we blind to their constant presence in our lives? Do we actively seek the Lord in prayer and through service to our neighbors? How can we hold the baby Jesus close, as Mary and Joseph did, if our arms are full of the baggage, angst, and frustration that we carry each day? If the manger was a meager bed for Christ, will he find our souls a more welcoming home? Have we spent Advent clearing out all the clutter of sin in our lives to make a space for the King of Universe?
It starts today. That’s the beautiful thing about our faith. We can decide today that we are going to make our hearts a second Bethlehem. They will not be perfect, they will be a little messy, but God humbled himself to come and dwell among us. That’s the Mystery of the Incarnation: not just that God became man, but that God’s presence is continually made known to us in the midst of our brokenness. We are beloved children of God! This joy in knowing that we are immeasurably and incomprehensibly loved is the spirit of Advent.
In the face of that, being stuck in Peru seems like a pretty tiny thing. In the face of my belovedness as a son of God, my sin seems like a pretty small thing. All the little inconveniences of our lives seem awfully small compared to a God-who-is-with-us. Yes, March was tough for me, but all the months before and all the months since have also been tough, too. Yet, in the midst of the toughness, God has been there. Today, in the spirit of Advent, instead of worrying about passing things, let’s focus on our relationship with Jesus so he will find room in the inn of our hearts and dwell more intimately within us.
And that, my friends, is truly exciting.