Jesus arrives and we receive the One we have awaited. The seasons and feast days of church calendars exist not only to change the colours and routines of faith life, but also change the way we live our whole lives. We learn to practice waiting – in joyful hope – for Jesus to arrive. And this practice waiting and receiving is meant to help us get better at waiting and receiving in the rest of our lives too.

For more than 15 years now, I have been baking with children’s “help.” I am pretty terrible at playing imagination games, but I have embraced the inevitable egg crashing to the floor. The dusting of flour across shirts and floors is a reminder to me that they are learning. Their enthusiasm for licking the spoon, watching the rising through the oven door, and eating our results is a great reminder of what joyful waiting should be.

At the same time, embracing baking with kids has also taught me to expect chaos. Fights over whose turn it is, Measurements less than precise. Double or triple batches to compensate for mistakes. We talk lots about how things do not always turn out the way we expect, and how to be gentle with ourselves and our results.

Decorating goes much the same way. Weighing at least six different opinions, we choose the spots that will hold our special things. We share in the work of vaccuming and dusting to make the space ready. Boxes come up from the basement and in from the garage. Stools to place the ornaments at just the right height on the tree.

The dog yelps because someone didn’t see her when they stepped off the tree. We didn’t get the right candy for the Advent calendar. Two kids constantly move the nativity characters back to their preferred arrangement. No one likes my favourite Christmas album, but they humour me. We talk about the gifts that will be under the tree, and how you may not be receiving everything – or anything – from your list.

When the kids were all still very small, I directed and executed most of this work. As a result, things were mostly the way I liked them. I knew that I was trying to teach them, but I did could not anticipate how they would learn.

This year, with the youngest four, they could do easily more than half of the work without me. I have been waiting for them to grow, to help, to lead, and now they can. It’s a new kind of hard to allow them to put things where they want them, to hear and receive their opinions, to let them develop their own ways.

Charlize did 90 per cent of the homemade Oreo cookies we make every year. She can read the recipe, measure the ingredients, use the mixer. When she doesn’t know, she asks for help. I am to give very minimal instruction because she knows. I did not recognize when I began to teach my children that they would learn their own ways, both a challenge and a gift for me.

Especially when the gift we long for is a person, receiving the gift changes everything. We practice preparing because we are waiting for a new life, with a Divine Other, whose presence will disrupt and unsettle us in the process of offering peace and joy.

So much of my ability to receive (others as) gifts depends on my willingness to be displaced – from my comfort, my self-righteousness, my resistance to interdependence. Many people are walking through very challenging seasons of life right now – job changes, ill health, financial stress, overwhelming grief. Everything happens. God does not cause our pain but will not waste it. This is the work of Advent and Christmas: to receive Jesus in what is, and in what is coming.

May we open our hearts to the cracks in our lives that will let God’s light in. May we receive the gifts that are offered this Christmas, even if they aren’t the ones we wanted. And may we remember that grace can come in every package.

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