Merry Christmas, Grandma (An Advent Story)

Sue Anne Martin is my grandma. She lives in a small brick house built in the Seventies for low-income families. The neighborhood around her has changed quite a bit over the years; the train tracks across the way don’t rumble as often as they used to. The people across the street still come and go, always tenants. Her neighbors to the right have had the same car propped up and under a dust cover since as long as I can remember.    

Grandma Sue turned eighty this past spring and has lived alone in her little house on the corner for almost thirty years after my mom went to college. She doesn’t have wifi or internet or a computer. She has a cell-phone somewhere, I think in a kitchen drawer with its battery drained. Her phone is still the spinning kind, and the only changes to her house came when my mom was still a teenager: she turned the spare room into a ballet studio so my mom could teach dance lessons—complete with linoleum floor, mirror, and ballet barre along the side. When I stay the night with Grandma I sleep in there.

Each morning she will get up and spend her time with Jesus. Her favorite verse is the one that says, “Cast your cares on him, for he cares for you.” She casts them every morning; she told me she’s prayed for my future wife every day. She’s thoughtful and loving like that.

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Advent is a funny time in the church year. It’s pretty difficult for me to commit to the thing—the quiet anticipation is hard.

The candles they light at church are interesting to me but are oftentimes seen as an extra ten minutes in the service. Ten minutes that I could spend going and eating food or writing about Jesus in a coffee shop.

The whole idea of advent being a time of quiet anticipation is foreign to me. The city lights all the buildings with snowflakes and a three-piece band plays in front of the Salvation Army bucket; I try and put a dollar in when I walk past, but I’m unsure whether or not it’s out of guilt. The streets are bustling and the shops are packed. I just sent my mom a link to a pair of Nikes I really want for Christmas, and I’m excited to fly back to Oklahoma for the family and the friends and the way the grass kind of crunches when it gets cold.

I’m not quite sure what quiet anticipation looks like. I’m not quite sure what it feels like. I’m pretty happy to keep bustling.

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Sue Anne Martin is a very matter-of-fact person. The other day I was on the phone with her and she told me her life was boring but she liked it. She had done devotions and would go to the Senior Center to “fellowship with my friends” and then finish the day by reading the book she was into at the moment.

I think I got my love of reading from her.

Another time I asked her why she hasn’t gotten remarried since living on her own. She told me, matter-of-factly, “Well, I just can’t imagine living with someone else. I like myself too much.” And then she laughed a laugh that made me laugh.

One night four years ago when we were talking on the phone she told me she was ready for heaven. I told her not to say that, that I needed her here for at least a few more years. She needed to watch me graduate college and be at my wedding and meet my first child. She couldn’t say she was ready to go to heaven. Because if someone goes to heaven they have to die first. And if they die then that means they aren’t with me. And Grandma Sue needed to be with me. She had to.

I had to get off the phone pretty fast that time. I was crying and couldn’t get any words out. After I hung up I cried more. I was standing outside, and it was a cold night. The stars were brilliant in the sky, like little pinholes peering into heaven. I wasn’t ready for them to have Grandma Sue. I just wasn’t.

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The long-awaited Messiah was born in Bethlehem on a bustling night. With the census going on and all the hotels full, the streets outside the manger were alive and active and full. Perhaps if it were Southern California there would have been snowflakes projected onto the sides of buildings.

But the world around the manger was busy and active and in a hurry. And it was within the bustling world that Jesus was born. Jesus’s crying was heard and comforted by Mary but was not heard by the city-at-large. More animals took notice of the Christ than humans did.

Mary and Joseph and a whole bunch of hay.

There was also an elderly woman named Anna. She isn’t mentioned until after the birth story, but the Bible says she spent all her life at the temple praying, waiting for God to become man and save everyone. That night she must have been at the temple. Not bustling to shops or renting rooms in the hotel or ignorant of the quietness. She was praying in the temple. She was quietly anticipating Jesus.

Mary and Joseph and a whole bunch of hay and, perhaps unbeknownst to even her, Anna.

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My brothers and sister and I will drive down to Chandler, Oklahoma to pick my grandma up on Christmas Eve. We’ll spend the day going to Sonic (I introduced Grandma Sue to hot fudge milkshakes) and playing cards in her little brick house built in the Seventies. Then we will drive her back to our house and “do” Christmas. We’ll do Christmas Eve service at church, come home for a big dinner my mom has spent too much time making, and go to bed early knowing my nine-year-old brother will wake us with or without the sun.

My grandma will most likely be awake the next morning doing devotions when we get her. She will be propped up on my bed (I move upstairs to the pull-out), reading lamp on, and ready to go.

She still squeels and gets excited with the rest of us for Christmas morning. She will ooh and ahh at the sports equipment and clothes and books my brothers, sister, and I get. She will open her gifts by saying, “Oh WOW!” She has this way of emphasizing words with breathless abandon. “Now you did not have to get me this!” She will then say everything she likes about the blouse or pants or sweater and make the gift-giver feel like the most important person in the world.

Grandma Sue is really good at making everyone feel loved.

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After Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph presented him in the temple. Jesus probably cried or laughed or played with the Rabbi’s beard during the presentation. Then his parents sacrificed a pair of turtledoves “and coming up at that very hour [Anna] began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

Somehow Anna knew. Like a spiritual love at first sight, she saw Jesus and she knew.

She knew he was the Savior, knew he was the one who would save humanity, knew he was the baby she had waited for and prayed about and fasted over for all those years. He was the answer to her quiet anticipation.

He called earth home so that we could call heaven home.

The only thing she could do, the only thing she knew to do, was tell everyone around. To worship God and salvation and the perfect plan framed in this little baby’s face.

Anna waited so long. She was active in prayer, faithful in love.

And he was here.

*                      *                      *

Sue Anne Martin gets up before the sun every morning and sits in her big chair. She wraps herself in a blanket and reads her Bible. She has never remarried because she likes herself too much.

But she is ready for heaven. She is praying everyday, quietly anticipating her return to her Savior. My grandma cannot wait to meet him, to hold his hand, to sit and talk with him. She goes up to the temple daily with a longing and a love.

That’s advent.