It is early on Saturday morning, the last Saturday in November. Noah is still in bed, so I whisper in his ear, "It's time to roll croissants, Noah." My words to wake him work like magic, and this tired twelve year old in the middle of a growth spurt gets up with joy and enthusiasm. It is bread baking time.
Winter finds me in the kitchen. If I am awake, I will be in my kitchen at work or my kitchen at home, making chocolate or baking or cooking or just assembling gifts. The work is intense in December: I used to despair that if I ever had children I would not be able to stop to enjoy the season, that come Christmas day I would be too tired to enjoy anything. I feel strung out and tired; I forget to shower, I forget to eat. Most importantly, I forget to stop and think about what Christmas is, what Advent is. I know that many people feel this way. But this is my second Christmas as a kid-raiser, and Noah is teaching me how to stop.
In the last week of November he asked if we could bake croissants. Always eager for a food related project, Noah wanted to learn to bake 'French stuff.' So on Friday night we rolled the dough and let it set over night. In the morning we rolled again, cut and shaped crescents of dough. Noah's a bit of a science consumer: he wants to know how yeast makes the bread rise, why we put butter in the croissants but not in the baguette. On week two we made baguette, and on week three, challah. I decided, right after the first week that baking bread with Noah on Saturday mornings will be my Advent practice. As the dough rises in the oven I will take time to wait: I will drink a cup of tea, and wait. When the smell of warm yeast drifts through the house, I will think about the anticipation of the season: Christ is coming. My mind will turn over the places in scripture where the bread becomes a key to the story and my mind will turn inevitably to Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.
When I was a child visits to my grandparents house were not complete without the perusal of their books of Bible Stories for Children, and this story was one of my favourites. The illustrations showed a smiling and healthy looking woman in possession of a beautiful, tiny metal pitcher of oil, and a small handful of flour. I always pictured the widow mixing the oil with the flour, feeding the dough to the oven, pulling out a hot, small loaf. I felt the satiation of their hunger by those mouthfuls of bread. While I read this story, lying on the carpeted floor of my grandmother's dining room there would be bread baking in her oven - it seemed my grandma always had buns on the go. My own belly would rumble: the smells and tastes of the bread of Elijah and the widow came alive to me.
What was not real to me then was the desperation and grace of this story. Before Elijah came along, the widow was near death. She was preparing to eat her last meal and then die from long term starvation and thirst. She would not have looked healthy and beautiful, she would have been starving, emaciated. As a child I couldn't know what this meant, and I probably still can't, but I can feel and know the power of that mouth full of bread. For me, bread was unlimited, rich and hot from the oven. The widow, her son, and Elijah began to have enough - just - to stay alive. The flour jar was never quite empty, the pitcher of oil replenished by miracles every morning. The daily act of making bread became a time of waiting for the drought to end, and waiting on God, waiting for the provision of His grace.
I find myself now in the kitchen, waiting for the bread to rise, waiting for the time to celebrate the resurrection of the Savior, the Bread of Life, whose body will be broken for us. I have always been well fed, but my soul keens for the renewal of my soul as the widow must have yearned for the renewal of her body. I am hungry for the peace of the season. And as Noah asks me, "Rachel, is it ready yet?" it becomes another kind of asking, an anticipation. Has the bread risen? Has Christ yet come?
The year passing now was a hard year for so many. I don't know anyone who went through it in peace. My own circles of connection were rife with illness, business failures, heartbreak, and grief, so much that I could hardly stand to look past my tiny neighbourhood into the wide world where typhoons ravaged the Phillipines and war raged in Syria. In Advent we acknowledge this deep and earthly grief and wait for the joy of the coming of Christ.
Perhaps penitential, last week I chose a flat bread seasoned with olive oil and salt, the closest we will come this month to the food of the widow and Elijah, but this weekend coming we will make stollen. We will prepare for celebration, of joy, light, and hope, and the bread itself will be a celebration: risen and studded with fruits and nuts, it will be beautiful, sweet and hopeful. For this is the promise: to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
He will come, just as the yeast will cause the bread to rise.
- Rachel Sawatzky