Details of the afternoon had clouded thoughts of what the evening was to hold. And then I saw him, my youngest school-aged child, trudging toward the van heaving a worn jean bag over his tiny shoulders.
The Joy Bag — I almost forgot!
As I cleared away a spot on the van floor for the heavy bag, I thought how fortunate we are to have gotten four chances now at this beautiful tradition. Our first chance was in 2002, when our firstborn was in first grade, back when the current Joy Bag recipient was but a tiny infant. Every couple of years, we are treated to this ritual of receiving joy into our home through taking time with our family to focus on nothing more than what is at hand.
"When can we do the Joy Bag?" the smallest student asked in eager anticipation. I had to break the news to him. There would be early evening activities that would claim the first time slots. The Joy Bag would have to be the final event before bedtime.
Waiting — an Advent given. But I knew it would be worth it.
And so it was that we came together, all seven us, in our livingroom at 8 p.m. Homework bags were abandoned, television shows cut short, lights dimmed, and a spot on our living-room coffee table cleared.
Our young leader began unwrapping the four Advent candles and spreading out the Advent cloth.
"I get to light the candles," said the oldest.
Everyone would play a part.
After all items were properly laid out — the children’s Bible and Rosary, the shepherd figurine that soon would claim a spot among the other Nativity-scene pieces at school, the coveted bag tied with string and a golden star, the C.D. of Amy Grant’s Emmanuel — we settled into our spots and proceeded with the order of events, which I led (with the help of Mrs. E’s instructive guidelines).
"Will you read the first story — The Annunciation?" I asked our youngest daughter. Her sister picked up afterward with The Birth of Jesus. Next, the first-grader, keeper of the Joy Bag, led us in a decade of the Rosary. We chose The Birth of Jesus as our meditation. He did a beautiful job of guiding us through, obviously aware of the significance of his role.
After the Rosary, it was time for the reading of The Tale of Three Trees, which was accomplished by Daddy. Our leader by that point had sunk into a spot next to me on the couch and enjoyed a back rub while we all listened. At the end, we discussed what it meant — how each tree had had a vision for his life, and how that vision was realized, though in slightly altered form than the initial hope; one that turned out a result far grander than Plan A.
Throughout the reading, our 4-year-old was becoming antsy and flitting to various corners of the room, over to the book to see the pictures, then onto another corner. He finally got his chance to participate when we played the song, Emmanuel. Who could be contained at that point? With our younger kids in particular, joy burst free.
We ended with the passing out of treats from the gift bag, two for each child upon sharing their favorite part of the session. Once the chocolate-pretzels were munched to satisfaction, it was time to record our thoughts in the class’s family journal, where we added them to the accounts of other families who had gone before us. After an illustration was created, and while the kids readied for bed, I wrote up the details of our time with the Joy Bag.
This morning, the youngest student solicited help from his older sister in carrying the Joy Bag into his classroom, where it was to be passed on to the next recipient. Soon, all families in Mrs. E’s classroom will have had a chance with it, and we’ll be closer to Advent completion.
No, it wasn’t a perfectly serene coming-together. We had trouble with the c.d., and there was some movement from the peanut gallery at times that made hearing the readings difficult. There were more than a few "ssshs!" coming from us grown-ups. But in the end, the bits of peace that came through were enough to permeate the night, if not longer. Sometimes, you take the grace as it comes in whatever dose it arrives.
I am so grateful for the Joy Bag. It has been such a precious part of four of our Advent seasons now. Thank you, Mrs. E., for keeping this special tradition alive so that our hearts might be enlivened anew.
In what special ways do you come together as a family during this holy season?
If you have a moment, listen to Amy Grant sing Emmanuel to share a piece of the Joy Bag celebration with us.