An Advent Reflection
“Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.”
― Thomas Merton
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” — Luke 2: 6-7
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For as long as I can remember, Advent has freaked me out. As I kid, I liked the portion of Advent that included fun activities pointing towards the anticipation of Christmas Day…but only for as long as those activities kept things light. I didn’t want any talk of Christ coming again, for that seemed far too grim and I was far too young to get my life cut short on this earth. I had things I wanted to do! All the “Christ has come, Christ will come again” talk dampened my Christmas spirit. My understanding of Advent did not have room for such unsettling sentiments; this was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, not the most existentially troubling time of the year!
“My idea of Advent did not permit room for unsettling sentiments; this was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, not the most existentially troubling time of the year!”
My track record in keeping Christmas first and foremost a cheerful time of year is quite long and quite successful, too. Decembers in high school meant choral and band concerts, class Christmas parties, youth group gift exchanges, and a list of traditions I viewed as vital for maximum cheer. Advent during college meant final exams and papers and projects, but also wassail in the boys’ dorms and walks across our snowy campus for late-night pancakes. The Christmas season after my graduation from college had me housebreaking a three-month-old puppy, and Advent 2017 had me living in a new city, packing my days with fun outings, last minute tasks for work, and preparations for my trip home for the holidays.
Which brings us to this year. It’s day two of Advent. I have a list of fifty Christmas cards to send, six presents to buy, cookies I want to make, and activities I’d like to do. And you know what? I feel like I deserve some cheer! Sure I can be intentional, contemplative, orthodox in my approach to Advent…but I can also keep it light! Right?
“I haven’t made Christmas ALL commercial,” I say. “I’m not like those people,” I think, even as I recall my judgment and disdain towards a family who came to my church’s Christmas Eve service in sweatpants. “I’m doing the Advent Bible reading plan!” “I have an Advent wreath!” “I’m a confirmed Anglican!” “I’m doing Advent right!” I assert, all the while deflecting the creeping darkness I feel pressing in from both outside and inside of myself. Historically I’ve packed my day full of preparations for Christmas and insist that everything is fine, but along the way, I seemed to have missed the whole point. I have shoved Advent to the side in favor of fake cheer, and I’ve shoved Christ to the side with it, too. I have not prepared Him room. In fact, I’ve done quite the opposite.
“Historically I’ve packed my day full of preparations for Christmas and insist that everything is fine, but along the way, I seemed to have missed the whole point. I have shoved Advent to the side in favor of fake cheer, and I’ve shoved Christ to the side with it, too. I have not prepared Him room. In fact, I’ve done quite the opposite.”
A book I read by Eugene Peterson this past summer references this problem well. Peterson writes:
“There are a thousand ways of being religious without submitting to Christ’s lordship, and people are practiced in most of them. We live in golden calf country. Religious feeling runs high but in ways far removed from what was said in Sinai and done on Calvary. While everyone has a hunger for God, deep and insatiable, none us has any great desire for him. What we really want is to be our own gods and to have whatever other gods that are around to help in this work.”
So while I have a deep hunger for the joy and peace of Christmas, my Advent track record shows my lack of desire to make any room for Christ at all — not now and not ever, preferably, or at least not until I complete my list of things I wanted to do. A pastor I heard at a conference this year named Duke Kwon recently wrote about this of the season of Advent on his Twitter: “Advent says ‘no’ to sentimentalized Christmas cheer; instead, it invites us to name our sorrows, lament unfulfilled longings, pay attention to the pain of waiting in the wilderness—all with quiet hope. ‘Advent begins in the dark.’”
I have always been a morning person, a summer person, a throw-open-the-shades person…but Advent begins in the dark. Advent begins in the dark. This Advent, the dark feels personal. Naming my sorrows, lamenting my unfulfilled longing, paying attention to the pain? I’d rather not. Can we just string some lights instead?
Last week, I was speaking with a friend on the phone, catching up about the updates in our lives as autumn ends and Advent begins. I shared with her that I had made a choice to forgo what is a neat and good opportunity because I “just need to sit down for a bit.” I went on, saying that while it was a good opportunity that I could’ve pursued, it also would’ve also meant busying myself even more after years and years and years of busying myself. College, graduation, new job, puppy, move, new job, move, new job. My approach towards Christmas and the Advent season — pack as much in as I can — is not seasonal, I have learned. This hurriedness is chronic, annual, repeating; it’s just taken me this long to notice.
I know I’m not alone in this chronic hurriedness. Tish Harrison Warren writes about it in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary: “I need rituals that encourage me to embrace what is repetitive, ancient, and quiet. But what I crave is novelty and stimulation.” I say yes-please to novelty, to more cookies and another Christmas party. I say no-thanks to quiet and solitude. I say maybe-later to reflection and contemplation. Why? Because in all honesty, I’m still that little girl who fears the “Christ will come again” promise of Advent. Because in all honesty, I don’t want to dwell in the dark. Because in all honesty, I’m afraid that it could all be a lie — that the light will not come and the Advent promises are empty. As a result, I do what I’ve become pretty good at — I keep Christ at an arm’s length. I feel that emptiness in my heart but I fail to admit that that room is for Him.
But this Advent, something is inviting me to “just sit down for a bit.” Something in me, despite the questions and the doubts and dread of pain I know is going to come is inviting me to come anyway. Something is inviting me to make some room. Perhaps this is how the shepherds felt — surrounded by darkness but drawn in by the great and glorious light that declared such good news to them that they couldn’t help but put one reluctant foot in front of the other and follow the strange star.
“This Advent, something is inviting me to ‘just sit down a bit.’ Something is inviting me to make some room.”
Because even while I tell Christ over and over and over again — Advent after Advent — that there is no room for him in my Christmas, he reminds me over and over again that there is room for me beside him. As I shrink away from the discomfort I feel, he reminds me that feelings are not ultimate, but he is. He shines light into my darkness. He does not judge me for what I can or cannot bring to this Advent season. He simply invites me to just sit down for a bit, to be still and know.
“Listen to your lives for the sound of him,” Frederick Buechner writes in his essay ‘Delay.’ “Search even in the dark for the light and the love and the life because they are there also, and we are known each one by name. And the name of the one who waits for us? It is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God.”
So even in the dark of this Advent, I am beckoned by the truth: he waits with me in the waiting. He waits with me in my fear of the unknown. He waits. Christ has come and he will come again, but he’s also with me now. He’s with me in the cheer and the joy, the sorrow and the sadness. He is the hope even when I don’t believe. He is the light in the darkness. He will bring peace that sees no end.
Glory to God in the Highest.
“The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”