Christmas has always been, of course, a special time for me. Every year the advent season pulls me in. For some reason, though, advent gripped me especially tightly in 2006.
Maybe it was the early snow fall we got that December that had me feeling “Christmassy” a bit earlier than usual. Maybe it was the anticipation of the end of a semester’s worth of work for the Bible College where I was employed at the time, and the deep breath that comes with the satisfaction of completing long-running projects. Perhaps it had to do with the little bit of traveling I was eagerly anticipating during the Christmas break, visiting family members who I don’t live near enough to see as often as I’d like.
But I think the biggest reason that I became so pulled in to the season of expectation that year is that my experience of the preceding calendar year brought me to a new understanding of the purpose of advent. Let me try to explain.
Growing up, going to the little church that was as much a family that raised me as it was the place my parents, sisters and I went to worship, I looked forward every year to the time we’d pull out the old advent wreath and place it on the table in the front of the sanctuary, lighting one more candle each week as we had the week before, until finally on Christmas morning all 5 would be lit, and the Sunday School teacher would give us a brown paper bag with an orange, a candy cane, and some candies and nuts inside. Advent, then, became very much a ‘countdown to Christmas’ for us. Though I’ve learned more about the history and meaning of advent since, my attitude towards the season remained much like this childlike understanding for a long time.
Then came 2006. 2006 was a year that, for me, started on a low note. I stumbled out of 2005, having been hurt in places I don’t typically allow anyone to go near. Out of that hurt came fear, loneliness, and skepticism. On top of that, I found my own family in what resembled turmoil, as old wounds surfaced that we thought had healed. I felt my foundations being shaken, and doubt began to replace faith. I tried to hide it, but 2006 was, for a long time, a dark year for me.
The word “advent” means “coming”. For us, it marks a season where we wait for the coming of the whole point of it all. The coming of something that might make it possible for us to keep going, to have any sort of hope at all, in a life that doesn’t make sense at the best of times, and leaves us reeling with hurt at the worst.
What I began learning that year is that Jesus didn’t just come in to a world that was doing just fine on its own, and throw out an invite to a great party upstairs, should we feel like joining. I began to understand and resonate with the part before he comes, when he was still “coming”. The part where things are just hard and we wonder if we should just toss it all away; and we cry out “how long??” just like the Israelites did. I think advent is a time for us to feel the pain of unfulfilled expectation, to grapple with unrealized dreams, to feel pain and loneliness, and to ask God, “When?” I think in some way, my “Advent ‘06” started nearly a year early, and that the coming of the literal advent season finally named what I’d felt for so long.
Of course, we don’t want to have a season set aside for the struggle. Advent would be a lot nicer if it was just the countdown to Christmas: a time of love, joy, and peace on earth. A season of waiting doesn’t seem like something I’ll enjoy. I don’t always do well with waiting. The 12 minutes it takes to get my plate of food at a restaurant feels like an hour. If my bus that’s scheduled every 12 minutes doesn’t show up within 5 minutes of me arriving at the bus stop, I begin to question the competency of the driver. And yet advent calls us each year to slow down and wait.
To wait, yes… but we don’t always know quite what it is we’re waiting for. If you ever, as a child, peeked in your parents’ closet to find out what they had purchased for your Christmas present, you know that knowing exactly what’s coming takes the wind out of the sails of expectation. To wait in the season of advent is to ask the question, “What’s next?” This is a question asked in the faith that something good might be just around the corner.
So this year, as we light another advent candle every week (or open a little cardboard door to reveal another chocolate every day), take time to join me in waiting. Take the time to “listen to your life”, as Frederick Buechner would write. Allow yourself to remember both the pain and the joy of this past year. Allow yourself to feel the pain of being incomplete, and yet…
…and yet, know there’s something more. Know that we wait, not in vain, but in hope and faith. Ask with me, “what’s next?” And open your eyes to what goodness might be just around the corner…