Have you run out of steam with this Covid thing? Let’s talk about something else.
Like how well Thanksgiving and Advent Sunday go together. Thanksgiving is an American holiday, of course, celebrated the last Thursday of November. Advent Sunday usually comes at the end of Thanksgiving weekend but tends to get lost in the huge American rush to get home from all the feasting and football. Here in the UK, Advent Sunday is celebrated in the church with a traditional carol service marking the beginning of the Christmas holy season.
Black Friday gets mashed in between the two on both sides of the Atlantic now ever since UK retailers discovered what a great sales opportunity they were missing out on. No need for a Thanksgiving holiday to get the shoppers in over here!
But wait a minute! The point about Thanksgiving that I love so much is that it is a day to give thanks for our many blessings before rushing out to ask for more. We feast, yes, and celebrate our family, friends, and shared history. But the good news is, it doesn’t end with the madness of Black Friday. Rather, it segues into the promise of the Advent Season.
Which is–We are not at the end of a horrible year; we are at the beginning of something new again.
That’s what Advent means–the coming of something we’ve been waiting for, a new beginning.
When Nehemiah led the Israelites in rebuilding the broken wall around Jerusalem, they themselves were a broken people. They were enslaved, exhausted, and prone to weeping.
Nehemiah’s directive to them after their building project was complete went like this:
“Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Neh 8:10
A passage of Scripture commonly read at an Advent carol service echoes Nehemiah’s words of rejoicing:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest..
“For to us a child is born, a son is given…of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.” Isaiah 9:2-7
At the end of grief’s long dark tunnel, God calls his people to joy.
So, what’s with the donkey?
I went to California at the end of October to visit Lyndall and my parents. The separation of families during this Covid crisis is one I particularly feel grief over. My trips to California are always a kind of homecoming for me. They are times of discovery as well as reunion. This time I discovered the Rancho Burro Donkey Sanctuary in Arroyo Grande, about an hour’s drive north of Santa Barbara.
I have had a thing about donkeys ever since reading Rachel Anne Ridge’s delightful book Flash–The Homeless Donkey Who Taught Me about Life, Faith, and Second Chances. Rachel came home one night to find a donkey in her driveway. He never left. Nor has this donkey-from-nowhere ever left my imagination.
Donkeys have a long history of physical neglect and abuse by their owners. They are amazingly resilient creatures, however, and persevere through cruelty and hardship with remarkable long-suffering. Fortunately, there are people who love these mistreated beasts of burden and sanctuaries have been established all over the world to care for them.
Rancho Burro is one of them. A retired couple, the Eckfords, have made it their mission to rescue abused donkeys and give them a home. One recovered donkey had been repeatedly tied up and used for rodeo practice. What kind of people do that? Altogether, there were about a dozen of them when I visited, donkeys of all different colours and sizes. They were very friendly and loved to be stroked and hugged. I found them to be incredibly soft and calming to be around. One curious donkey lip-nibbled my sweater, just to check me out.
The moment I will never forget, however, came when lunch arrived. At the first sight of the hay-filled wheelbarrow, a cacophonous chorus erupted of intense and exultant braying unlike anything I have ever heard in my life. One particular donkey was clearly the lead brayer and urged the others to greater and more ecstatic heights. Think you know what a donkey sounds like in full rapture? Hee haw doesn’t come close. They raise their long snouts to the heavens, roll back those velvety lips, and BLOW!
“HUH! HUH! HUH! HUHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!”
Imagine an entire barnyard of them! I stood transfixed in wonder that such a sound existed. These were donkeys once condemned to painful deaths. Now listen to them!
The joy of the feast! The unabashed joy of being alive! Who cares if they can’t sing!
So, here comes the Advent donkey, bearing the Christ Child to Bethlehem. He is sturdy, yet soft. Mary strokes his neck. Not much further to go. She and Joseph will make their bed in the donkey’s straw. He will stand vigil, as donkeys do, a comforting presence in the midst of a comfortless place, waiting for a child to be born.
At some stage, the commotion begins. A newborn baby cries out its first intake of breath. Somewhere outside, angels are singing and filling the heavens with “Glory to God!” Shortly, a band of star-struck shepherds with bleating lambs roll in. More animals fill the tiny space. There are bound to be other donkeys in that stable. The road to Bethlehem has seen many travellers these past few days.
Then, the innkeeper brings in fresh hay.
Let’s just say, it was not a silent night!
That inevitable donkey chorus doesn’t get a mention in Scripture. But it had to have been there, that overwhelming proclamation of joy at the Advent feast. The Christ Child grew up hearing and knowing donkeys from the very beginning of his earthly life. He would ride on one through the gates of Jerusalem while the crowds waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna!” In a few days time after that triumphal entry, he would be despised and rejected by his own people and forced to carry a cross. He understood the lowly beast of burden whose back is marked with a visible cross.
This has been a year of much disappointment and sadness. But there has also been joy–no question. Deep, life-affirming moments of joy in the beauty and wonder of life and the Creator who placed me here.
Do not grieve. The Light of Advent is here. And all Creation sings and honks and brays at His coming.
We will begin again. May the joy of the Lord be your strength.
Flash by Rachel Anne Ridge
The Wisdom of Donkeys–Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World by Andy Merrifield
USA–Rancho Burro Donkey Sanctuary: http://RanchoBurroDonkeySanctuary.org
UK–The Donkey Sanctuary: http://thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk