A map for Advent

It is now the 2nd millennium of the reign of Christ the King, when Francis was Pope, Michael was bishop, John was pastor, and the people gathered at St. Francis. Again the voice cries out: “Prepare the way of the Lord” – as it did last year; as it will again. What will you remember about this Advent? Other seasons of Advent?

Did you know I used to live in Loudoun County back in the 1980s? I owned a home in the hamlet of Paeonian Springs. After growing up in Florida and always living near the ocean, suddenly I was inland and living on the first ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After years of competitive swimming, I was now living in a county that did not have a public swimming pool. I needed a new sport.

Back in the 1980s there was very little traffic in Loudoun County. It was a great place to ride bicycles. The terrain is all rolling hills, beautiful landscapes, horse farms and more. Starting from my home, I had countless routes to ride. I could head back east where it was a little less rolling and just crank out miles. I could head west to the Catoctin and Mt. Weather and spend the day climbing and descending. If I went north I was passing through Revolutionary War settlements and some amazing horse country. If I went south it was again rolling hills, steep climbs, and lots of horse farms owned by Hollywood actors, B&Bs for the Washington DC crowd to spend the weekends “in the country,” and lots of Civil War battlefields.

All of this is connected by roadways, byways, back roads, country lanes, and throughways across some of the most amazing of God’s green acres… I don’t think there was one bit of road planning involved. I always suspected they just paved over the cattle paths, followed property lines, and from time-to-time were just simply random. The Taylorstown Road did not have one stretch of straight and flat on the whole thing. If you wanted to go riding out where I lived you needed a county roadmap.

Advent is like that. It is one of the amazing seasons of the liturgical year – and I wonder if too often we travel it without any planning, without looking back at the year and Advents past, to check out the route we are on, to take in the scenery of this spiritual season. There are countless routes we can take.

I bought a map, studied it, and in time began to color code it. The black roads were steep climbs and daredevil descents. The green roads were east rolling hills. The yellow highlights were in between. Some of the roads were marked with big red dots. That meant you were likely to be chased by a dog – so either avoid the road or be prepared to sprint. Soon enough I had explored the entire county and had maybe 25-30 different routes ranging from 30 to 100 miles in length – and knew the way by heart and memory.

Lots of people came out from Washington DC and the Northern Virginia suburbs to ride. Loudon was an easy place to lose your way. You came across people with maps, standing in a group, pointing in different directions, and someone plaintively lamenting, “I told you we should have…”; should have stopped for directions, taken the last turn, or any manner of “I told you so” commentary. Often they had not brought enough water, overestimated their fitness, and had already ridden too far.  Moods had turned sour, backs and bums were sore, and they knew it would be a long, silent slog back to the car.  They weren’t prepared for the journey; they struggled and missed the sights along the way.

Advent can often catch us by surprise, wedged between Thanksgiving, swept into black Friday and cyber Monday, with Christmas looming and all that needs to be done for the holidays.

Knowing the way is what opens you up to seeing all the surprises along the way. It is like the Taylorstown Road ride. The path isn’t straight, the valleys are definitely not filled, and not one hill on the road is made low – if you don’t know the way. But if you have mapped it out and know the road, the familiar turns and climbs free one to pay attention to what is along the way. Instead of being glued to the handlebars and road, you can take in the wonder of the Firestone Ranch, the Christmas decorations in Waterford with the huge Australian pine dressed out against the early morning sun in all its holiday finery. Memory lets you shift into the best gear, taking the best line through the turns, and hitting the climbs with an optimal cadence. The way is almost straight, the hills not so tall, and the rough ways are made smooth.

Recently I traveled the Taylorstown loop by car. I remembered every turn, every hill, and every climb some 30+ years later. I remembered the spot that had earned a red dot on my map. I instinctively wanted my friend to accelerate past that house. This is the living memory of a way well trod. I haven’t seen my county road map in years, but I still know the way – and there is newness each time I travel that road.

For me, the Taylorstown loop is a metaphor for Advent. You have to intentionally choose to go there – not once, just passing through, but to return each season. Each time you need to mark the map in black, green, and yellow, with the red dots to mark the rough spots. All these marks are the memories of Advents past and are what helps you to be able to see the wonders along the way each new Advent.  An Advent spent on Mfangano Island in Lake Victoria, lots of  Advents at sea submerged on patrol, the last Advent when our family gathered before my father died, the Advents of my youth when each day we opened the windows on the Advent calendar – all memories and marks on the road map of one life. Each one preparing me for the next one.  The way becoming almost straight, the hills not so tall, and the rough ways became a bit more smooth. It all allowed me to see new wonders along the way.

What do you remember about last Advent and other Advents past? Is the way becoming part of heart and memory forming your spiritual map of the season? What do you hope to take away from this Advent?

It is now the 2nd millennium of the reign of Christ the King, when Francis was Pope, Michael was bishop, John was pastor, and the people gathered at St. Francis. The voice ever cries out: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Amen.

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