By Tonia Peckover, parishioner at Christ Church, St. Helens
I figured I’d lost my wedding ring along the old logging trail I walk each day. Sometimes, on a hot afternoon, the ring would grow claustrophobically tight on my finger and I’d slip it off, put it into the pocket of my pants for safekeeping. Over the winter I’d lost gloves that way, carelessly stuffing them into my coat pocket only to have one of them escape and make a leap for the freedom of the trail. Sometimes I’d come across them the next day, soggy and limp with the night’s rain, and I’d roll my eyes and stuff them firmly back into the pocket where they belonged. When I realized my wedding ring was gone, I imagined it on the same stretch of trail, gleaming gold and white, small among the chunks of broken asphalt and coyote scat. It made an ache grip the back of my throat; the trail is well traveled, the ring much more valuable than a cotton glove. No one would leave it lying there for me to find another day. The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, I searched. For weeks after, I searched: the trail, the house, the car – but there was nothing.
It was strange to me, how like grief the loss of the ring felt. This time of year, with the church calendar winding down, I often find myself wrestling with a similar feeling of grief and loss. Once again time has passed and I am still the same. I have not answered all my questions, I haven’t yet recovered the faith of my childhood – a brilliant, shimmering thing that brooked no doubts, no fears. Sadness hangs about the mind like October’s cobwebs – tattered, stretched, tenacious. In one of Jesus’ parables, a woman loses a silver coin, and I feel myself ever stuck in that moment of loss with her, searching, always searching.
It’s November when I write this and already the grocery store aisles, only recently stripped of Halloween’s glut of candy and costume, are packed with Christmas glitter. We’re a people uneasy with empty space, always racing full tilt toward the next high point. When I discovered the liturgical year as an adult, I was surprised to learn that the church year begins four weeks before Christmas, with the quiet, uneventful season of Advent. Gertrud Mueller Nelson says that during this time, “Nature seems asleep. The season is dark, and all that is becoming is hidden from our sight. ” Reading this, I began to see that there was space for my yearly sadness, the disappointment I felt within myself. This is the time, Nelson says, when we are invited to be “vulnerable to our longing.” This is the season of the unwed mother, the long months of rehearsing the promise, believing, hoping there is more going on than you understand and Someone good watching over it all.
The weeks of Advent have become a special time in our home. We light candles each night, reading aloud to each other from Scripture the long, winding story that carries us through the hopes and fears of other, ancient generations. These nights contain a sacred anticipation that I cherish; the thin sadness of the year’s end burns away in Advent’s unassuming light. It matters that the church year begins this way: not in realization, but in hope. Feast days are often a celebration of the saintly and the extraordinary, but Advent offers us the gift of knowing that the long waiting, the questions, the fears, are equally part of the mystery of faith. “I dwell in possibility,” wrote Emily Dickinson, a line that seems to embody the heart of these quiet days. But Advent is not a stopping place – we cannot dwell forever in hope alone. Advent is a journey, a road that is taking us into fulfillment, and that, too, is something we must be taught to trust.
Early this fall, three years after the wedding ring was lost, Mark and I spent a Saturday afternoon clearing out garden beds, tucking in a few winter greens, turning the compost pile. That was where he found it – the ring – peering out of the deep black compost, a dusted glimmer of gold he thought was the foil wrapper from a bottle of wine or a vending machine toy. I was planting kale when he called my name, came down the path with his hand outstretched and his eyes laughing. When the woman in Jesus’ parable found her coin, she stopped everything and called her friends to come rejoice. Immediately, I, too, was ushered into astonishment and joy. The ring had never been lost on the trail. It had been right here waiting for three years, preserved by what can only be an undeniable grace. The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue said that what he loved about Christianity over other religions is that at the heart of it, “you have this intimacy, which is true belonging, being seen…” Surely this is the intimacy that O’Donohue talks about: we have put our faith in a God who tends to the smallest of our needs, who walks beside us in the dark and whispers, “keep going, there’s good ahead.”
The ring is back on my finger where it belongs now and when I see it, I see not only the lovingkindness of God, but also the promise that he keeps writing into our lives: hope is not pointless; lost things can be found again; the dead can be resurrected. This year, before we begin again this circle of hope and fulfillment in Advent and Christmas, I’ll go find the Nativity set in its box in the attic, unearth the small figure of Mary and place her on the mantle. It’s a minimalist figure, carved with only the suggestion of features. She is kneeling, the curve of her undefined face tilted to look at her son. I am left to imagine her expression, the emotions that must have swept her up in that moment, but there’s a stillness to the figure, something tender and undeniably familiar. I suspect it’s the stillness which draws me to her, this ordinary/extraordinary woman at the juncture of both loss and realization, holding peace within herself like a gift.