The American Dream
In the American imagination, the “holiday season”—that stretch of weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas—is a magical one. It calls to mind beautifully decorated tables and the nearness of loved ones. It is shrouded in soft light and comes with the promise of fulfilled longing.
Whether we carry childish hope for the ultimate gift from Santa— like the horse I asked for when I was nine— or more nuanced hope for mended relationships, family togetherness, and the end of loneliness, we have been taught to expect our personal versions of “peace on earth” during the holidays.
This fulfillment, of course, describes few of our actual realities. (I did not wake up to find a horse under the tree on my ninth Christmas.) And in fact, the Hallmark version of Christmas that we’ve grown up to believe is normative only serves to further shame and disillusion those of us who experience significant and increased pain during the holiday season—whether it’s the pain of loss, mental illness, or other experiences of brokenness.
So often, those who are suffering feel like outsiders in an otherwise “holly, jolly” (“most wonderful”?) time of year, adding insult to injury.
Advent for Exiles
But this is why Advent is such a gift for the American church. The ancient practice of setting aside the four weeks leading up to Christmas for penitence and reflection gives us permission to acknowledge—indeed makes front and center—the darkness that characterizes life on this earth.
Advent breaks us out of the false expectation that all must be well, or even will be well in our world—until the Light of Christ comes in fullness. It allows us to name our longing, to be sure; but not with the expectation that it will be fulfilled on or by December 25. Rather, Advent compels us to cry out, “O come, O come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Advent teaches us to live with unmet longing. It is the season of exile.
And while Advent rightly gives way to the celebration of Christmas, it also serves as a reminder to us that not even the Incarnation is the final chapter of the Christian Story.
Though Jesus has come and is the answer to our prayers, we still await the fulfillment of His work on earth. His first advent changes the nature of our waiting by infusing it with hope; but until His glorious second advent, we wait nonetheless. This is why the majority of Scripture readings during the season focus on the return of Christ; and it is why the Church on earth and in Heaven continues to cry out, “how long, O Lord?” (Rev. 6:10).
Those who carry chronic pain know well that the world in which we wait remains fraught with grief— some of which will not be resolved until Jesus finally returns.
A year ago on Thanksgiving, I lost a loved one to suicide. As might be expected, this made my own experience of the holidays more like a nightmare than a nicety.
But surprisingly—even to myself—church was one of the most comforting places for me to be during that season. Not because it was adorned with garlands and ringing with my favorite childhood hymns, but because it made space for my grief.
Church during Advent was one of the few places it seemed OK to not be OK; to simply wait in the dark for the Light to come.
This is, after all, how Advent begins: in darkness. We wait—indeed we long for the Light of the world to enter into our pain, our loneliness, our dysfunction— for we know that, apart from Him, we are hopeless.
Advent reminds us that the incarnate Christ is not merely a cheerful addition to our peaceful world, a pleasant ornamentation of a middle-class Eutopia. Rather, the coming of our Savior is his entry into a battlefield. It is his willingness to condescend to our bloodstained, tear-filled, chaotic world and to mingle his own blood, sweat and tears with it. It is his commitment to be baptized into our very darkness and death so that we might be baptized into his light and life. This is the Christian Story.
Sometimes the relative peace and joy of our circumstances obscure the ferocity of this Story from us. When we—blessedly!—experience the embrace of friends and family or the health and happiness of loved ones, the holiday season is joyful. We can and should give thanks for this.
But at other times, the pain of our personal situations can cause “holiday cheer” to seem jarringly out of place. And the only thing that seems appropriate is to sit in a dark room with one small, faint candle burning.
Last year throughout Advent, that is exactly what I did. I did not have many words to pray, but I could light candles. The traditional wreath adorned our table and soon another appeared on our coffee table. Still more candles lit my bedside table at night and my prayer room in the morning.
And day after day as I struck the match, I proclaimed to myself the words of the prophet Isaiah (42:3): “a bruised reed he will not break, a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” I waited and I wept, and I perhaps observed Advent more purely than ever before in my Christian life.
These memories remind me that while my story is personal to me, it is not unique. Many people in our churches, our neighborhoods, and our families will enter into the holiday season this year feeling like little more than faintly burning wicks. This is, at present, the human condition. Our hope is frail, our stories are broken, our bodies are weak.
And yet, as Christians, we do not need to try and pretend this isn’t so. We need not be afraid of our desperation or ashamed of it. Indeed, Advent validates our grief and locates it within the Christian Story. It gives us permission to be weak, frail, and bruised— and to wait in hope for Jesus to come.
This is the invitation of Advent.
We are invited to put away any pretense of merriment and to bring the full ache of our longings to God.
We are invited to entrust ourselves again to the lordship of Christ and to pray with raw sincerity, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”
We are invited to remember that in the long, sometimes dark, wait for redemption, he will be faithful.
For “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8–9).
As we wait for His coming, may we know these words to be true— whether we feel them as a triumphal declaration to be shouted from the rooftops, or as a silent prayer whispered in solidarity with all whose hope is hanging by a thread.
Praise be to our God that there is room for both joy and sorrow at His Table this holiday season.
If you’d like to learn more about Advent, you should check out A Thrill of Hope: Celebrating Advent at Home (Revised and Expanded for 2020). You should also take a look at our Rookie Anglican Guide to Advent.