Catherine Doherty, founder of Madonna House, tells a lovely story about an Advent custom from her childhood. When Catherine was a little girl, her mother would tell her that if she was good during the Advent season, then sometime, at first faintly and then more clearly, she would hear bells. Her mother called them the first church bells: they were the bells around the neck of the little donkey who carried Mary, pregnant with Jesus, as she and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem. Our Lady, said Catherine’s mother, was carrying the Lord, so really she was the first church carrying Jesus, and the donkey’s bells were the first church bells.
Starting around the second week of Advent, her mother would begin wearing a little bracelet that had tinkling bells. As her mother moved her hands, Dorothy could hear them tinkle and, excited, associate them with the donkey’s bells. During the third week of Advent, her mother’s bracelet miraculously got more bells on it and the sound grew louder and louder the closer it got closer to Christmas. As Catherine and her brother found out later, her mother was wearing bells first around her wrist, then her knees, and then her waist, adding more and more as Christmas approached. By the time Christmas Day arrived, their little house was filled with the sounds of bells.
Catherine carried the custom over to Madonna House. During Advent, she would begin wearing a few bells that could be heard wherever she walked. Like her mother, she added more and more as the days progressed. The community, familiar with the story, used to tell her that the sounds helped them meditate more profoundly on the mystery of Advent and the coming of the Christ Child.
This Advent, I too was blessed to hear the donkey’s bells. One evening mid-December, my husband and I went with three of our grandchildren to an inner-city parish. Walking into the large church basement, we saw tables laden with wrapped presents, towers of them in some cases, and volunteers at each table wrapping more. We joined the work crew, wrapping and labelling the donated toys as “Boy 7-9,” “Girl 12-14,” etc.
The gifts were being readied for the parish’s annual children’s Christmas party where approximately 800 children from the community would receive a Christmas meal, meet Santa and be given a gift. Everything, gifts and food, was donated; all the workers were volunteers. Chatting with a woman at the table beside me that night, I learned she worked for a social service agency and had brought a work crew of about 10 people to help with the wrapping. The co-ordinator remarked that he had more offers of help than he needed and that both money and gifts were still pouring in. I listened to them, watched my grandchildren earnestly cutting and taping, and I swore I could hear the donkey’s bells in the background.
The bells were ringing again when we gathered with our family and dear friends for our annual tree-decorating party. A tradition for over 30 years now, we gather the Sunday before Christmas, exchange simple gifts, partake of a good meal and help the children decorate our tree. The gifts we exchange are our tokens of the deep affection we enjoy, one that has grown over the years as we have shared life and love; the rich food celebrates the abundance of life and our joy in being together. As the laughter rang out in our house that day, I was sure I was hearing donkey’s bells.
I heard them many times this Advent season. Once was when I was walking outside on a dark starry night. The silence took over and my heart’s deepest longings surfaced. As I acknowledged my thirst for healing, peace and justice to be born into the world, my ears were filled with the sweet sound of the bells. I heard them again while sitting in a darkened concert hall listening to the sounds of carols being lifted to the rafters. The carols were accompanied by Scripture readings that told the Christmas story and as I listened to the familiar, beautiful story unfold, my heart calmed, anxieties eased, and busy-ness was set aside. Peace entered my soul and donkey’s bells joined the choir.
But it is Christmas now and a season too soon over. Decorations are hastily packed away; festooned trees are stripped bare and discarded; diets and discipline replace our feasting and excess. A new year waits in the wings and the bells signifying the advent of the Christ Child are silent. It’s over, it seems.
But wait. Does it have to be over? Would that we keep the bells ringing! After all, the Spirit of compassion and kindness that moved so many to give so generously, the Love that was expressed as families and friends gathered in joy, the Grace that moved us to hunger for and work toward peace and justice: these have taken on flesh and drawn near in a humble stable centuries ago and today in our hearts. Men and women still give, still love and still work on behalf of others. Christmas is not the end of the story; it is the beginning. Christ continues to draw near and continues to be birthed every day and everywhere — and the bells never cease for those who have ears to hear.
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.