Throwing Our Despair and Hope into Advent

Commentary
By Jean Neely 12-05-2017

This has been a devastatingly difficult year for many of us, to say the least — even for those of us whose homes and families haven’t been directly hit by any of the ongoing wars, natural disasters, or the reckless actions of the current president. Around this time last year, many in our country were insisting we needed to withhold judgment and give #45 a chance. While some church leaders led us in lament after the election, too many in our churches urged us to “wait and see.” More than 10 months in now, we’ve had time enough to witness more grievous offenses than we thought were possible from anyone in that office within such a brief period.

Many of us, especially those of us from marginalized communities, are angry and battle-weary as Christmas draws near. Thankfully, there are communities within the church where we can grieve together and link arms in resistance to unacceptable new norms. And there are brave ones who stand on the frontline, such as the clergy who were recently arrested for protesting unjust policy proposals. In the face of increasingly shameful and disastrous behavior from the White House, however, many faith leaders seem now to have adopted an apolitical “see no evil, hear no evil” stance when it comes to Washington.

Amid this, some of us find our souls needing something other than the typical all-American Christmas (and we certainly have no patience this year for the ubiquitous images of white Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and Nordic heavenly hosts). What we need is something perhaps more in line with the spirit of Advent. In contrast to the high-voltage celebration of Christmas in the U.S., Advent invites us to pause in the moment of unfulfillment. It invites us to embrace an active, even vigilant waiting. Advent enters into the uncertain time before the heavens open up and the angels sing. It faces the long night of oppressive Empire with a call to “watch and wait” for the One who will restore and make all things new, a call that is starkly different from much of the church’s “wait and see.”

Although I grew up in the church, I didn’t learn about Advent as a sacred season until after college, in France, when a German flatmate introduced me to it. On the first Sunday of Advent, she invited a bunch of our friends over (atheists, Christians, Muslims), made mulled wine, set up a bountiful green wreath with candles on our little dining table, and explained the significance of it all to our delight. I was enchanted — and also miffed that in my 22 years, no one in my family, church, or any Christian circles had ever mentioned anything about it!

Advent was what my heart needed then and still needs now. It’s where I tend to dwell.

For the past two months, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to Taizé music during my commute. I had the opportunity years ago to spend some time at the monastery in Taizé, where the monks are known for both their expansive hospitality and their distinct modes of worship and prayer. Much in the spirit of Advent, the prayerful songs from Taizé give voice to the cries of the heart —to the groans, lament, and longings that fill the Psalms but tend to be discouraged at church, especially around Christmas-time. The prayer-songs name our sense of feeling lost in the dark, yet remind us that even darkness is as light to God (“Dans nos obscurités” and “La ténèbre n'est point ténèbre…”). They invite me to trust, to trust that God is the ever-present One who loves us, the source of life (“Toi qui nous aimes, source de vie…”)— but without glossing over the fact that human existence is riddled with injustice and heartache. Even their bright, celebratory songs resonate a sense of longing that makes space for ongoing grief and holy discontent.

I often feel pressured by our culture’s rendition of Christmas to be more or other than I am, with more faith and contentment and glitter than I can usually muster. But in Advent, I sense the Christ who welcomes all of me — with my small, incomplete faith, all the quiet desperation of my day to day, and the heaviness I feel for the state of our country and world. In this season, we invite Christ’s light into the places of hopelessness in our hearts.

In this season, and really every season, we are invited to watch and wait, to stay awake and “live into the waiting” as we both labor and celebrate. Here, we embrace the glimmers of grace, beauty, and Christ-hope surrounding us even as we wrestle in and loudly curse the muck (as many of us who return to last year’s wonderful #F***thisS*** Advent devotionals will do). Despite the wreckage around us, we follow Jesus into the peacemaking work that at times feels impossible. We continue to believe and to love. We carry each other’s burdens. We light our candles and shine our little, flickering lights, as we throw all our despair, our gratitude, and our hope into our cries, “Come, Lord Jesus! Come!”

Dr. Jean Neely is a writer, independent scholar, and Christ-seeker. She loves literature and the pursuit of peace for all peoples. She currently teaches writing at Azusa Pacific University.

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