Elauterio knew the way. Sweating in the October heat, our group trailed after him under low branches and down a bank of loose stones. My backpack pressed against my damp shoulders as I followed his boot-clad feet through soft soil. After fifteen minutes of walking and scrambling, Elauterio led us into a shaded opening. A large mango tree hovered leaves over our heads and a small stream rivered past its roots. We stood there, grateful for the rest but unsure of what we were supposed to see.
Mira, he grinned, pointing down. Look. I looked. We were standing on a low retaining wall built with stones held together by a wire cage. Sensing our confusion at marching though dust and cactus to see this, Elauterio explained. In his rural indigenous community in the highlands of southern Mexico, everything depends on the land. If rain doesn’t fall the soil becomes parched and infertile. Farmers can’t grow enough food to feed their children and earn an income. Lack of opportunity forces people to migrate north, leaving their families and land behind. Marginalization and poverty begets drug abuse and violence.
Elauterio built this wall to stop erosion and purify water that runs down the mountains. Rainfall filters through the stones, transfigured into clean water that soaks into the earth so even during dry seasons the land can grow food. With a simple barrier of stones collected from the nearby streambed, Elauterio ensured his land would produce crops—and with crops, a future—for years to come. This wall represented self-sufficiency, dignity, and hope, all bundled in a wire cage. But as visitors we didn’t immediately recognize it for what it was.
Most of the projects Elauterio showed us were like this. In partnership with Plant With Purpose, an organization that equips farming families to grow out of poverty, he is renewing his land and spreading a vision of resilience and self-sufficiency to his neighbors. At first glance, though, his life-altering work doesn’t look revolutionary. It looks like tiny seedlings pushing up through the dirt or an orchard of young avocado trees reaching skyward. Or a rock wall built near a streambed.
This Advent, I am struggling to see the restoration taking root in my life and in lives around me. Louder things demand my attention and I’m easily distracted. I feel hurried and hungry for peace, the kind of peace that tugs me to God like a tide. I can’t recognize the wall under my feet for what it represents: clean water, food, a future. I can’t experience this season for what it offers: joy, anticipation, the settled expectancy that God will fulfill his promises. My eyes are not good enough to notice how constantly hope unfurls—even now, as I am unfocused and anxious. Especially now, as we anticipate the birth that shifted history.
I imagine Christians have had bad eyes since the beginning. It must have taken supernatural sight to recognize Jesus’ birth as the advent of the Messiah: Mary seized with contractions on the floor of a barn, Jesus arrived in empty darkness with a few farm animals as witness, and drifting shepherds served as his welcoming committee. The circumstances surrounding his birth seem unimpressive if not completely backward.
God’s methods run counter to human preference and plan. My eyes, like the eyes of those throughout the millennia, need to adjust to God’s way of seeing. Jesus’ arrival means transformation here and now—a journey with him, to become like him, as all of creation is renewed. In my experience transformation is a long road marked by small victories and larger setbacks. It’s impossible to see the full narrative of restoration when we are beleaguered and stuck in the middle.
In addition to symbolizing expectation and joy, Advent might be a time for God to restore our vision. Let’s remind each other that God’s means of rescue are hard to recognize at first glance. Blessed are the meek and the marginalized, for God stands near them. Blessed are the overlooked, because new life is springing up at their feet. Blessed is the quiet, dirty way that Jesus arrived in the world. Blessed are these weeks of Advent even when the work of restoration in our own tired hearts takes place out of sight, beneath the soil.
P.S. Order your copy of Nations Journal Vol. 3 to meet the reformers who are restoring their land and lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Photo: Piedras Negras-San Mateo Rio Hondo, Oaxaca, Mexico by Felix Nuñez.