On the first sunday in december, i sit in Saint Aldate’s church in Oxford and hear these words:

Now is the time to wake out of sleep: for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.

And I think: now is the time to make a purposeful trip to the supermarket and do the shopping for all the baking that needs to be done. Now is the time to make sure all the church programs and neighborhood parties and school activities are penciled in on the calendar so we don’t overbook like we did last year. Now is the time to get up in the attic and dig out the Christmas decorations! Now is the time to get the children to the barber, and call the university to see if they have any decent tickets left for this year’s performance of A Christmas Carol.

Mrs. Williams has stepped to the lectern for the New Testament reading. I hear her proclaiming something about dates and times, my friends, and how we know perfectly well that the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night, and I wonder why it is that Christmas so often comes like a thief in the night for me.

I remember standing by my mother’s side in the kitchen—on a little chrome stool to help me gain counter height—receiving patient instruction on how to form the small, savory meatballs that will be served at our Christmas Eve smorgasbord; how to work the cookie press as we prepare dozen upon dozen buttery spritzes that will melt in the mouth; how to heat the oil “just so” for puffy rosettes, and then dust them with powdered sugar. I can hear the slam of the back door as my father enters the kitchen and gives my mother a hug; she complains that she’s behind on the baking, the whole thing has snuck up on her, and he steps back ...

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