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By Eric A. Clayton

When I was an undergraduate student at Fairfield University, I had the opportunity to be on the leadership team for a service immersion trip to Nicaragua. Part of that responsibility included leading reflections at the conclusion of each of our days in-country.

And boy, did I have a good one.

We’d spent the whole day “building” a house. I say “building” because, really, it was the local Nicaraguans who did the real work. We band of undergraduate do-gooders mostly got in the way and played with the kids.

Regardless, our hands were filthy: dirt in fingernails, cuts on skin, blood and mud and cement caked on everywhere, the works.

So, what was my reflection going to be when we all sat down in the evening air, chairs pulled close in a circle?

“Look at your hands,” I would say. “Look at the dirt. What does each of those particles of dirt represent for you, for the community here in Nicaragua? How do you literally carry that disposition of service with you in your very skin? How has it left its mark?”

Something like that.

Except, here’s the thing: Everyone showered before our reflection. Everyone’s hands, consequently, were clean. What to do now?

As it turned out, it was still worth looking at our hands. It’s not what we saw there, but what we didn’t see – what we had to turn to memory to fully understand. The mark left by the day’s work – the day’s encounters and experiences – was still present, but not in such an obvious way.

Could we still see it?

In the midst of Advent – a time purportedly of joyful anticipation, but in practicality one of chaotic planning – it’s easy to see the dirt on our hands.

We’re balancing the social, the spiritual, the emotional and the physical. We plan Christmas cocktails and Advent prayer vigils and hurry to buy the gifts and put up the tree and make arrangements for our holiday dinners. We check in with loved ones and send Christmas cards to practical strangers.

Even the most well-intentioned Advent can turn a bit hectic, and we see it in ourselves: the bags under our eyes, the weariness of our bodies, the grumpiness and irritability, the impulse grab for one more cookie. We see ourselves with those muddy, dirt-stained hands.

But then comes Christmas! And we’re tempted to pretend as though everything is and always has been perfect. We wash our hands of the Advent chaos, literally, figuratively, and we go to welcome that newborn Christ.

This Advent, as we begin these few weeks of prayerful chaos, remember: Christ doesn’t come to see us clean and tidy. Christ knows the dirt and grime and chaos of our everyday lives – of those Advent days that preceded Christmas joy.

Look at your hands. Remember all that you do, all that you try to do, and know that Christ is born into those moments, too, just as much as Christ comes into that silent, “perfect” Christmas scene.

So, wash your hands, get ready for Christmas, but know that all you do during these Advent days is just as important, is just as powerfully connected the story of Christ in your life and mine as the events we know will unfold on December 25th.

This reflection is part of an award-winning weekly email series. If you’d like to get reflections like this one directly in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterBusted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian.