Growing up my family didn’t celebrate Advent in any traditional sense. We always attended non-denominational churches that lacked any sort of liturgical traditions. We never used an Advent calendar or lit the appropriate candles on Sundays, though we did set up a nativity scene where the baby Jesus remained conspicuously absent until Christmas morning when me or one of my siblings got to unwrap the Christ-in-manger figurine and place him between his expectant parents who had been kneeling in awe of an empty space for weeks.
Even without Advent traditions the Christmas season was always full of excitement and anticipation for me. There was something mystical and magical about the lights and decorations, familiar tastes and smells and the chance to sing Christmas carols during regular church services. But, like many people, after adolescence hit, some of the glitter started to rub off. I remember feeling a sort of let-down that for some reason even though I enjoyed Christmas, it just didn’t feel as magical as it used to. This continued year after year and despite my attempts to follow the advice of all Christmas movies everywhere to “Just believe,” I could never recapture the way I’d felt about Christmas as a six-year-old. Eventually I gave up hoping that Christmas could ever be as magical as it was back then.
I’ve noticed a lot of people this year posting blogs or statuses about feeling disappointed and discontented with the way Advent is turning out. People are angry about the injustice in the world, disappointed with circumstances in their own lives, or frustrated with their own busyness. All of this disillusionment seems to center on the idea that this is not how the Christmas season should be. I’ve seen a lot of comments along the lines of, “This is supposed to be a season of joy, a season of peace, a season of contentment and closeness to our families, a season of celebration.” Even those who don’t claim Christianity often consider this time of year a good time to remember the poor, to celebrate family, and to intentionally show more love and patience to others.
I think we may have gotten it wrong.
I don’t think Advent is primarily about peace and joy and all the other warm and fuzzies we think we’re meant to feel. I think Advent is about longing.
It is about longing for a world that is not broken. Longing for justice for Michael Brown. Longing for restored relationships with our families. Longing for a world where people cannot be bought and sold as commodities. Longing for comfort for the friend who has lost her child. Longing for rest from a world that is moving so fast we feel like if we pause for a moment we’ll get left behind. It is about longing for hope that we are not abandoned.
Most of us are very uncomfortable with longing. We live in an instant-gratification world, one where it is unacceptable for a need to go unmet or a wish to go unfulfilled, so when we feel emptiness in ourselves, we rush to fill it. Sometimes the desire to satiate longing manifests itself in materialism – the need for the next new thing. Sometimes it shows up in our relationships and we use and abuse other people in our desire to satisfy our longings.
My own attitude towards longing is usually, “How can I make this go away?” But I think we have two choices when it comes to longing – we can lament the discomfort we feel and try to make the feelings go away, or we can embrace those longings and let them change the way we live and love.
Maybe Christmas is the perfect time to bring awareness to the disparity between the world we live in and the world we long for.
My favorite Christmas song has always been “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
This is a song about mourning and emptiness and the longing of a people for rescue and restoration. But it is also a song about hope. Yes, we are mourning in exile now, but Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come.
Calling attention to the brokenness in the world doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. As long as we continue to deeply feel this disparity, there is hope. As long as we still have the image of what peace and joy could look like in the world – as long as we live every day to bring these things to our corner of the world, there is hope.
For Christians, it is the hope of the incarnation. It is the tangible promise of God with us. It is the belief that we are not abandoned. As long as we both pray and live “Thy Kingdom come,” there is hope.
If we’re looking for a perfect time of holiday cheer this season, we can be sure we won’t find it, but that doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to disappointment and disillusionment the way I did when I outgrew my childhood belief in Christmas magic. We can embrace the longing and feel it deeply instead of trying to chase it away with other things or feeling guilty that we aren’t filled with peace and joy . And we can rejoice that Hope is still alive and let that longing and that hope change the way we live.