The Last Present Under the Tree
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. – Psalm 126:1-3
When I was a kid, on Christmas morning, there was the ubiquitous tearing through the pile of presents. I always moved slower than my siblings, savoring, because I wanted the feeling of joyful expectation to last. I hated the emptiness that would settle on us when the last gift was opened, and the spell was broken.
Inevitably, when we had trash-bagged the riot of wrapping paper, we’d often discover one last present under the tree. True, it was usually for someone else—a family member not yet arrived for our festivities. But even though I knew it was not for me, I could hope and wonder what it was. A fruitcake? A power drill? Cruise tickets? World peace? As long as it remained unopened, it was, in a sense, for everyone. And it could be anything.
This is Advent. Advent is the last present under the tree, the one we can wonder about, the thing we haven’t gotten that we most long for. The reality that will make us say, when we receive it at the end of earthly time, “our mouths were filled with laughter, because God has done great things for us.”
Most of us (in white, middle-class culture anyhow) seem hell-bent on accomplishing, achieving Christmas. We have ‘kept a good Christmas’ if we have successfully played Santa Claus for ourselves and those we love, ticking everything off our lists, providing every good thing plus ten or twenty extra for good measure. I myself struggle against this deep cultural tide.
But people who can buy or otherwise arrange for themselves everything they ever wanted for Christmas have no need of a God. So here comes the good news: if you hold back on ‘keeping a good Christmas’—if you leave something undone, unbought, unopened, uncontrolled, unplanned, unlooked-for—you’ll arguably do something better. You’ll keep a good Advent.
God, Giver of Every Good Gift, help us remain a little bit hopeful, a little bit empty, a little bit open to you doing great things for us instead of playing Santa to ourselves.
Molly Baskette is Senior Minister of the First Church of Berkeley, California, and the author of the best-selling Real Good Church and Standing Naked Before God.