Rethinking Advent

I need Advent this year.

I look forward to this season of the liturgical calendar always, of course.  But at first glance it seems as though this year Advent will be, in some way, diminished.  In my area, we are facing the prospect of more lockdowns.  I haven’t seen the inside of my church since March.  My mother has a more positive diagnosis now, but she just had major colon surgery and is facing a long recovery as well as the prospect of additional treatment.  When I said goodbye to her during my last visit, thanks to cancer and COVID, we couldn’t even hug—masked, we touched sterile gloved pinkies from an appropriate distance.

Nothing is normal. The world feels dark.

Autumn and winter, of course, have always been a time of drawing-in.  This is the dark half of the year.  But this year the dark half feels ever darker—even for believers, I suspect.    Especially for believers.

Which is, of course, exactly the point.

American Christians have always had it exceptionally good.  The lead-up to Christmas is generally a happy time, full of celebration and festive churches, family gatherings, cantatas, living nativities, and candlelight services.  By and large the season is festive, the mood is bright, and Christian community is paramount.

But this year is a year of profound hardship for many people: economic hardship, health hardship, psychological and spiritual hardship.  And it is a year of exile for the church.  I don’t think that word is too strong: I do feel as though I’m in exile.  I can’t even remember the last church service I attended live.  Worship and prayer have become circumscribed to my home.  I show up virtually to church with hundreds of others, but it isn’t the same.  We are a scattered people, cut off from each other. 

Into this, the coming of Advent and the culmination of Christmas promises light, and life, and hope.

Christ did not incarnate into a world at peace.  He was conceived in a time of corruption, danger, and darkness.  We romanticize the nativity, but we must not forget the harshness of the world Jesus was born into, emblematized by the humble location of his birth.  God’s hope came unlooked-for and unsought, the news delivered to bewildered shepherds, while the rest of the world fixed their attention on kings, on crises, on present circumstance.

For that reason, Advent this year feels to me as though it will fall on us like blessed lightning if we are willing to pay attention.  We are in a chaotic moment.  Nations fix their attention on pandemics and politicians.  Families cannot gather together or celebrate the same traditions as usual.  Everything is sundered and split.  And it is always in times like these that God reveals Himself in the most surprising ways.

In the darkness, God always makes Himself known to those who wait for Him.

With that in mind, and because this year is so different and has splintered pretty much every Advent and holiday tradition I have, I’m approaching the season as a time to indulgently and lavishly nurture my faith.  To look for Christ and wait for the many ways I know God will make His presence known and has, already, made His presence known.  For me, this means:

  • Books (in addition to Scripture!).  I am reading every faith-expanding, faith-nourishing book I can get my grubby little fingers on.  What will make me dwell on Christ?  What will hasten my heart to Him?
  • Time to simply be with God.  I am taking a lot of long walks.  I am taking time-with-God teas and sit-with-God coffees.  Anything that gets me into God’s presence and away from all of my stuff is a win.
  • Decorations.  I always love to decorate.  But when the Advent season feels a little more constrained than usual, decorating the house reminds me of what a rich and anticipatory time it is.  Everywhere I look, I’m reminded of joy.
  • Doing.  I am crocheting, crocheting, crocheting to make little things for others, and I am putting together a ‘reverse Advent calendar’: one where I try to serve God in some meaningful way through giving or doing something for others each day of the season.  This is a little more challenging in a pandemic, but I’m getting creative.  I am writing more.  I’m pitching in to help my husband more.  I’m doing what I can long-distance for the people I know and love.

I don’t know what your Advent might look like this year, but I hope that in spite of whatever it should have been you will be able to turn your attention to what it yet could be.  However you choose to turn to the season—whether in quiet solemnity or deep joy, in solitude or with a housebound family—my prayer is that God reveals Himself to you in surprising and wonderful ways, a reminder that hope is inextinguishable for those who trust in Him.

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