Holy Longing: Why Advent Isn’t about Peace and Joy

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.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
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.

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14 comments

  1. I really appreciate your words about “out-growing” the magic of Christmas. As my kids are growing up, I have missed the “magic.” I’m not particularly domestic, and that lack is most apparent at holiday seasons. (I’ve drafted a post about that very topic.)

    I am not sure that I completely agree with you that Christmas is about longing, though: isn’t it about the fulfillment of a longing for a Savior? Emmanuel means “God with us”; the incarnation meant that the longed-for reconciliation with God, prophesied in Genesis, was in progress.

    While Christ reconciles us to God, brokenness in the world will continue until He comes in glory. That brokenness weighs heavily on us. So, In that sense, there is so much longing for peace, for reconciliation with one another, for freedom from sickness and sorrow and death.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sandi, thanks so much for your comment. I actually agree with you. Maybe I could have been clearer in this post, but I don’t think Christmas is about longing. I think Advent, the Christmas season, the time we spend waiting for Christmas to come, is about longing. Then Christmas comes and we have celebration, epiphany, etc.

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      1. Okay, I see what you mean: you did say, “Advent,” (not Christmas) and you’re absolutely right: “advent” is about waiting for that promise to be fulfilled. Sorry, I didn’t read carefully enough.

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  2. Nice to hear a new perspective on the negative reactions one sometimes hears with regards to advent , I will now see hope within these reactions and that hope will sustain because at the very least it alerts me to the fact that we all , dare I say innately desire Christmas to be a time of sharing peace and joy with our neighbour.

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    1. Thanks! I’m glad you found some hope here. And I think you’re right that many people who were raised in Western cultures, whether they are religious or not, have a sense that Christmas is a time for peace and love.

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  3. I would only add that advent is about the holiest longing of all: God’s longing to be with us. Even in his perfection he longs to be with us so we can have his glory. That is amazing love. (I’m studying Exodus and the Tabernacle, so God wanting to dwell among us is at the forefront of my mind.) =)

    Great post!

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  4. The “magic” of Christmas when I was a child was based a lot on getting those gifts I had been hoping to get for a long time. Now, I see the “magic” in trying to find a way to make Christmas extra special for someone else! It could be a gift, an encouraging word, time spent on a shared activity, and so on. It just makes this time of year so much more enjoyable when you are focused on others as opposed to what you may get, or how people may treat you, or how poorly things may be going in your own life or family.

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  5. Wow. Loved your perspective. What you interpret as longing, I experience as anticipation, I think. Perhaps the difference is in the way we view the world? I’m no Pollyanna. I know there are atrocities, injustice and untold horrors. Never ending suffering, sickness, starvation. And feel guilt, I guess, that I live a comparatively privileged life.
    For me, the advent period is the culmination of the year. It’s about being inclusive, and celebrating what we have, and what’s to come. If the season doesn’t meet my expectation, then that’s ok, because there is always next year, and all the intervening days, to live everyday in awe, and wonder, and hope for the future.

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  6. To be honest, I actually sort of dread Christmas, with umpteen different family get-togethers we have to coordinate and attend, and all the list-making and double checking that we didn’t forget this gift or that family member. I love the idea of Advent as longing. I think it’s okay for us to embrace loss and lostness even during a time of looking forward and hoping. Nice post!

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