By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published November 26, 2009
The train is roaring by on Coventry Road and the blaring whistle is inspiring a symphony of howls, some soprano, some baritone, from the dogs that live in Chelsea Heights.
I have always loved trains, having traveled on one from Atlanta to New Orleans many years ago with Jef. We ambled about meeting various people in the club car, and we could watch scenes from the Old South unfold through the windows.
Every year, as Advent beckons, an image of a train appears in my head. It is not the Crescent, which took us to good times in the Big Easy, nor is it the train that zooms by in my neighborhood.
I think of it as the Christmas train, coming full steam ahead and right in my direction.
The train is loaded with passengers and paraphernalia. There are elves, evergreen trees, roasted turkeys, colorful stockings, reindeer and gaily wrapped packages. There are fancy blenders, coffee pots, computers, silky sweaters and glittering jewelry. And there are stacks of newspapers flying off the train with ads proclaiming: “Fifty percent off!” And “Buy more, save more!”
Of course, the conductor is none other than Santa Claus, and he has this frantic gleam in his eyes.
And way back in the caboose, very far from sight, there is this humble little crib, and in it, ever so quietly, slumbers a tiny baby. Yes, it is the Christ Child.
Every year, as Advent begins, I go slightly mad, trying to stay one step ahead of the fast-moving train. As the big day draws ever nearer, I find myself breathlessly making lists.
There are cookies to bake, presents to buy and wrap and get in the mail, cards to write, the tree to trim, and other traditions to uphold. The very thought of the mad frenzy often has me in tears.
This year, I thought I’d try a new tack. There is no way I will give up the frenzy entirely because Christmas, on its deepest level, celebrates the greatest gift of love imaginable: God humbling himself to be born as a tiny baby.
But when I looked at the reading for the first Sunday in Advent, I noticed that Christ’s words are cautionary: He is telling us to be ready to meet Him: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” He also tells us to be vigilant and pray for strength.
So Advent is a reminder that we will someday meet Christ—not just in the manger at church on Christmas Day, but also after our death. Realizing this, I pulled out my trusty Liturgy of the Hours book and began reading morning and evening prayers. Somehow, just taking a few moments away from the madness helps remind me of what the hoopla is all about.
In truth, I am still running in front of the train. I still hear the almost deafening whistle blowing, and when I turn around, I glimpse the elves and the blenders and the maniacal look in Santa’s eye.
“Lord, help me,” I pray because I know that if I stop moving for even a second, I will be run over.
As I run, though, I am praying for the grace to be strong. I am praying for the strength to be vigilant about going to Confession during Advent and spending time in prayer. And I’m realizing that unless I turn to the Lord, I really will be crushed. Wasn’t he the one who said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled”?
I know I can’t stop the Christmas train, but I pray that I will be able to put first things first. I know only God’s grace can heal a troubled heart. And only through prayer will I discover how to move that tiny baby from the back of the caboose to the place where he belongs, in the very center of my life.
Lorraine Murray’s latest books are “The Abbess of Andalusia,” about Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic faith journey, and “Death in the Choir,” a mystery set in Decatur. Both books are available at www.lorrainevmurray.com. Artwork is by Jef Murray. Readers may e-mail the Murrays at firstname.lastname@example.org.