For many of us the trees are up, the Christmas parties have started, rehearsals for pageants are well under way, Black Friday has been observed (willingly or not-so-willingly), and the outdoor house Christmas lights are glowing (that part was easy; the person who was supposed to take them down last year never got around to it, so basically you just had to dust off the plug-in).
For some of us Advent begins our celebration of Christmas. Wreaths are made, calendars begin to peek open, and candles named “Hope”, “Joy, “Peace” and “Love” are lit. We’ll even light a “Christ” candle come Christmas Eve.
And there it is: We have jumped out of Advent straight to Christmas.
It’s not at all wrong to celebrate Advent as a time of longing, to seek hope in dire circumstances or joy where there’s heartbreak. What we have a tendency to do, however, is secretly harbour the refrain that: Christmas is coming! Christmas is coming!
Suddenly the darkness doesn’t seem that dark; and the longing doesn’t seem so painful.
But in our eagerness to jump to Christmas, we miss out on the reality of Advent: people were longing without certain hope of any Christmas at all. There was no knowledge of a Saviour, no expectation that a pregnant virgin was going to give birth to a world-changer, and certainly no thought that God was going to intervene out of Palestine. The Romans would have scoffed at that!
What good comes out of Palestine?
We often miss the deepest longings of Advent completely because we hold on to the merriment of Christmas morning. On this side of history, we know Jesus was born, we know God intervened, we know the powers of darkness were defeated.
But does everyone?
Even those who claim to ‘Christian’, in the midst of suffering, poverty, grief, despair, sorrow, racism, homophobia and transphobia, malnutrition, war, disease and oppression, do people know that Christmas is coming?
I’m coming to learn that “No… not everyone knows. And even if they do, that knowledge is a slim hope at best. At its worst, it’s a lie.”
For me to immerse myself in the longing of God and the longing of those who suffered then and those who suffer now, I must relinquish my hold on Christmas. I must put down the wreaths, put down the candles, put down the decor and the calendars and trees.
I must lay aside Christmas.
For hope that is seen is no hope at all.
“Abandonment by God in the depths of suffering is the greatest of all sufferings.” says Choan-Seng Song “Absence of God at the height of human agony is the most cruel of all cruelties. Forsakenness by God in the abyss of death is the most hopeless of all hopelessness. Stripped of our belongings, our relatives and friends, our dignity and humanity, we experience excruciating suffering. But stripped of God, we have lost all defence, all meaning, all hope, and all reason to live.” (CS.Song, Jesus the Crucified People, p. 71).
Now Song was referring specifically to Jesus’ shout from the cross: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” But his comparison of Jesus’ suffering to the suffering of Song’s people in the 20th century is apt. People who have had everything taken from them, including their ability to see or sense God, have nothing to live for.
And I believe the same kind of heartbreak and outcry applies to so many of our realities today: little Syrian bodies washed up on foreign shores; the ongoing oppression towards indigenous women in Canada (and around the world); the woman crying in my office this past week, enraged at Christmas because “I can’t do this again”. Her first husband passed away 22 years ago around this time. And now so again, her second husband is being made comfortable in a hospital bed because there’s nothing more medical doctors can do for his weakened heart.
This, my friends, is true longing.
This is Spirit screaming and moaning upon God with words we cannot understand. We cannot even understand the grief ourselves.
Christmas might not come.
I’m not talking about the snow, the turkey, the lights or the presents. I’m not talking about a nicely-themed Dr.Suess story.
I’m talking about the reality that people live in day after day, knowing that God might not show up. Children will die; spouses will die; oppressors will continue to oppress; countries will shut doors; we will treat the natural world with disdain; and the most vulnerable among us will ask again and again:
“How long, oh Lord, how long?”
This is Advent.
Advent is entering into a season where we begin to identify the real. We begin to celebrate the reality that God might not show up. We confess that we don’t know the end of the story (Christmas), and this… this we fear.
We want the end of the story. We don’t want Advent to become unending.
But the reality for many in our world today is that it is unending.
Will we enter into this darkened season with such humility? Do we dare?
Otherwise Advent becomes a pre-christmas glamour. Beautiful candles and beautiful celebrations.
But the cries of our hearts are subdued and muted once more.