On Nov. 29, the season of Advent began. This seasonal build-up to Christmas often comes with a nostalgia for past things.
Whether we’re longing for grandma’s Christmas baking, opening presents with loved-ones now deceased, hearing our favourite Bing Crosby tunes on the radio or listing to classic Christmas stories by the tree, this time of year always has a way of bringing us back to moments in our past.
In the Church, Advent is a time of preparation for the birth of Jesus. It is a time when we open space in our lives for other people and for God so that when Jesus comes again we will be ready to welcome him.
One of my favourite Christmas stories is the Italian folktale of La Befana. Many years ago, there was an old woman named La Befana who lived a quiet life in a quiet village.
Late one night, there was a knock at La Befana’s door. When she opened it, three men dressed in fine robes and jewels stood in front of her. The three men introduced themselves as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. They explained that they were traveling and needed a place to stay for the night. La Befana let them in.
While they ate a hastily prepared supper, the men entertained La Befana with tales of their travels. Eventually, they told her why they were traveling in the first place. They were astronomers from the East. Each of them had seen a star which they believed foretold the birth of God’s Son. Now, they were trying to find God’s Son.
In the morning, as the men prepared to leave they invited La Befana to join them. La Befana declined. She was a homebody. Over the next few days, though, her thoughts often drifted to the three men, the star, and God’s Son. Overcome by curiosity, she packed a cloth-sack with food and gifts for the child, and hit the road. But, she couldn’t find the men. So, she decided to look for God’s Son, but didn’t know what he looked like. Legend has it that La Befana continues to search for the Christ child. She stops at every house. Not wanting to miss out on another opportunity to welcome Jesus into the world, she lives a gift or performs a kindness for every child she meets.
There are many versions of the La Befana folktale. They all tell of a woman who searches for the Christ child. And, in some versions of the tale she does. In all the stories, the narrator tells us about the change Christ made in La Befana’s life: she began to treat everyone as if they were Jesus. She began to perform kindnesses for everyone she meets.
The La Befana story reminds me of the meaning of Advent. It’s about preparing ourselves for Jesus. But, preparing for Jesus doesn’t mean waiting for Jesus. In Advent, we learn to expect to meet Jesus in every person we meet.