Christmas decorations caught my eye earlier than usual this year–not literally, but the discussion of them blew through social media like a tornado through a haystack. Questions abounded: Is November 1 too early to decorate? Are people who think so nothing more than mean people that hate happiness? Do people who don’t think so deserve to get sick of the lights and glitter by the first week of December? And what about Thanksgiving? Are we just going to forget a day of turkey and football?!
I have always been solidly in the camp of withholding Christmas decor until at least Black Friday. I like to enjoy each holiday as it comes. But what I noticed this year was that, over and over, people arguing for early Christmas decorations came back to one theme: It makes me happy to decorate. I need to be happy.
Oh my God, I realized, that’s it, that’s exactly it. It’s not a question of when is “too soon” to decorate; the problem is that so many people are using Christmas and its baubles to numb pain they may not even realize they have. “The world sucks! Let’s put up tinsel!”
But this isn’t a solution to pain. It’s narcotization. It’s leaning on something external to soothe an internal misery, and I don’t think the vast majority of people realize they’re doing it, as they stand in the check-out line at Hobby Lobby, their carts overflowing with green branches and red ribbons yet their faces sour and grim. The world sucks. But is a red bow going to fix that? Maybe for a minute. Maybe for a month. But not forever.
Enter Advent, an oft-forgotten season of the church year that many Christians don’t even know exists. I know I didn’t for a long time. I knew the word, and I had heard of Advent calendars as a means to count down to the big day. But Advent the season? My low-church Protestant background didn’t account for that, not with Christmas trees going up the day after Thanksgiving and carols jumping in the song lineup for the following Sunday.
It’s hard for me to explain Advent in a nutshell. If I tried, it would go something like “It’s a season to prepare our hearts for Christ’s arrival, both as the baby in Bethlehem and as the King of Kings on the last day.” It’s not an incorrect summary, but it’s so weak compared to what Advent is and what Advent does. (My point in this post, however, is not to get into the liturgical technicalities of Advent. You can check out resources on that here and here, and some resources for marking the season here.)
Advent is a longing, waiting time. It is a time to beg God “How long will you delay?” It is a time to remember that he, in the person of Jesus Christ, has already touched our world and will return one day to fix everything. Advent holds the wailing and grief of our shattered world in one hand and the brilliant hope of “thy kingdom come” in the other. Already and not yet.
Advent forces us to slow down, to look our pain in the eyes, to see it and name it. No longer is our grief and suffering veiled behind smooth jazz renditions of carols at the craft store. There are no glittering lights in Advent to distract us from what hurts. There is no narcotization in Advent.
But there is hope.
The first candle of the Advent wreath is, fittingly, the Hope candle. We light this candle, knowing our brokenness, knowing the agony of human existence, and also knowing that we are seen by the One who entered this world once before to be just like us, to come screaming into the world he was meant to save, the Lord of Light dressed as the illegitimate son of a teenager and her carpenter fiancé. The hope of Advent forces us to look at Christ and see that he has saved the world through his death and resurrection and is currently saving the world through his Spirit, left behind to be our Comforter until Christ returns to reign on Earth.
“That’s great and all,” you say, “but what does that mean for me right now?”
It means it won’t always be like this. It won’t always hurt. The tears we cry now will be dried up in the kingdom to come, soothed forever. Through Christ, we have hope that our pains and struggles, while yeah, they suck, will not stay with us forever. Some of them will be relieved here on Earth. Others, we have to wait, and wait, and wait, yet with the promise of complete redemption. We have been saved. We are being saved. We will be saved. Already and not yet.
Advent forces us to embrace the tension of this. It asks us to acknowledge the bitterness in ourselves and in our world, but it asks us not to wallow in our misery but to put it in the hands of Christ, to say, “This hurts, this sucks, please fix this.” And the hope of Advent gathers us up warmly as we hear Christ reply, “I will.” Then we, bursting with this hope, go out among our neighbors to share hope and grace where we can, how we can–with a smile, a dollar, a meal.
Advent is not a season for rejoicing, and yet it is. It’s for lamenting the hurt of existing while also looking forward to a day when all is made right. It’s not for singing Christmas carols, but it is for singing songs of waiting, of longing, of hopeful anticipation of our current and final redemptions.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, the words go.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Stephanie, too.
Advent takes this refrain and pleads it, over and over, until we are screaming it, replacing “captive Israel” with whatever we need to be ransomed. We do. I do. And Christ is faithful to do so. This is our hope, the hope of Advent.
I pray you sit with this during a season when the rest of the world tries to hide pain behind shopping, feasting, and decorating. I pray we are all able to look at a world that lives in the painful tension of Advent all year long and say, “Christ is hope. Let me show you him.”
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 2019)
Per aspera ad astra,