Several years ago, I discovered I loved Advent. I was teaching a women’s Bible study in a church that doesn’t recognize Advent – just Christmas. Having grown up with an Advent wreath in church, and having observed Advent in my own spiritual life as an adult, it made sense to me to teach from that season in the weeks before Christmas. What I didn’t anticipate was how much it would resonate with the women in that class, and in my own heart.
Advent, as practiced by Christians through several centuries, looks little like it does in American culture today. The main focus of Advent, historically, is looking forward to the Advent of Jesus Christ that is still in the future. It is a time to recognize that this world is not as it should be, as well as the sure hope that someday it will be put right. It is to state the ache of living in bodies and families and countries that fall so far short of what we long for and need. It is to own up to the fact that, sometimes, as we feel those longings, God seems silent and far away. Finally, it is to surrender those longings in hope that someday we will see the face of Jesus, and all of those aches will be wiped away in an instant, for we will see God.
Advent is located before Christmas on the calendar because Christmas tells the story of Jesus’ first Advent, when He came as a baby after God’s people had heard nothing from Him for about 400 years. Generations of people had been born, lived, and died, without the promise of a Messiah being fulfilled, without any updates from God via prophets, with nothing but silence. Those 400 years of silent anticipation mirror our own gap and silence. Jesus said He would come back. That was over 2000 years ago. What the heck?
But you won’t find “What the heck,” or anything stronger than that, on so-called Advent calendars or Christmas cards in America in 2019. Advent calendars count down to presents, or maybe to family, both of which can be dicey, and neither of which have guarantees. Maybe, “what the heck?” would be more honest. It would be for me. As I’m writing this, my next-door neighbors are 3 days into life after the loss of their 28-year-old daughter. She had children who are 10, 8, and 6 years old. Her funeral is the day before Thanksgiving. What kind of Christmas are those children going to have this year? What kind of Advent calendar isn’t repulsive and insipid in the light of that kind of loss. What the heck?
Advent comes into that kind of sorrow and longing. Jesus comes into that kind of sorrow and longing. Just as His birth shattered the silence of God and ushered in hope the first time, His presence now, and His future coming, call us to drop our, “What the heck?” laments at His feet, to weep the tears we have locked away, and to stubbornly hope in the One who promises peace, joy, and love to people who desperately need Him.
When I taught that Bible study years ago, this tension of ache and hope brought tears and laughter to that little group of women. We found solace in the outward traditions of Advent – the wreaths, the Nativity scenes, the hymns. The tangible things helped us truly witness the joy of Christmas in our terribly imperfect world. I have seldom experienced the presence of Christ as I did in those weeks with those women.
This year, I have had a growing sense of longing to return to that joy and peace via writing about it. I’m setting about to write from the perspective of someone waiting through the ache to the hope. I don’t know which one will surface on any given day. What I know is that I want to live and write truly of both. I want to have a heart with room for joy, peace, and love this Christmas. I want to wait for Jesus to break the silence of my longing with Himself.
Would you like to join me?
I’ll be sending out something that I write, plus a suggested spiritual practice for that week, on each of the four Sundays of Advent: December 1, 8, 15, and 22, as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In between those times, I’ll be posting occasional short pieces to this blog.
If you’d like to receive those emails, you can sign up here.