I did not grow up participating in a church that observed (or even mentioned) the season of Advent. The whole concept was new to me when I was a young theology student being introduced to the Reformed tradition and Church history. But the traditional Advent practice of “waiting” – the reality of longing for something more – was not new to me.
I remember the waiting. I remember looking at those presents wrapped under the tree and counting down the days until they could be opened. We didn’t have an Advent wreath, but I remember the hope, peace, joy, and love. Hope that the present I was longing for was under the tree. Joy when it was found and opened on Christmas! Peace when I had searched and then found the perfect gift for each of my family members and wrapped it in love under the tree.
Is this all too superficial? Perhaps. Every year I see chatter on my social media feed with Presbyterian pastors arguing over the proper place of Advent in their congregation’s worship practices. Many of the conversations turn downright hostile! I recently saw some pastors calling (in jest) for disciplinary action to be brought against other pastors blending Advent and Christmas in their worship services. And while I know they weren’t serious, I got the feeling that they would not, in fact, be opposed to such extreme measures if they were to happen. I have heard of churches being nearly split over the issue of singing Christmas songs during Advent (seriously!). Fortunately, the vast majority of pastors are more sober-minded and prefer to walk a middle road when it comes to Advent and Christmas practices.
But as I look back, I see that the waiting for my family’s Christmas Day celebration was not superficial at all. Christmas morning was the one time of the year where I could usually count on a happy time with my family. Often, as is common in life, that celebration occurred in the darkness and shadow of other struggles. I remember Christmas celebrations during times that were darkened by the death, grief, and loss of close family members. I remember Christmas mornings spent with family in rehab facilities. There was that Christmas morning that I spent working long hours for minimum wage so that I could pay my bills and pay off debt. There was also that year that my wife and I spent Advent waiting for the birth of our fist child. My wife spent Advent waiting in ways that I can’t even imagine – stuck on bedrest due to the danger the pregnancy was causing to her own health. Then her pain of giving birth on Christmas Eve, followed by the unmatched joy of holding our son in our arms on Christmas morning!
As I get older, I find myself more and more willing to enter into the waiting of Advent. Waiting, not just for a Christmas Day celebration with family, not just for presents under the tree or a feast on the table, but waiting for the day when Jesus will return and put an end to the death, suffering, and injustice of this world. A day when the joy will be so overwhelming that everything else we have experienced in life pales in comparison.
Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earthJon Foreman, “A Place Called Earth”
Where every son and daughter will know their worth
Where all the streets resound with thunderous joy
Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth
This song has made it onto my Advent playlist this year and seems to have lodged itself on repeat in my head lately. It expresses for me the way I now approach these weeks before Christmas. I take upon my lips the prayers of those who are suffering and longing for change and relief. I do this while simultaneously singing the songs of Christmas joy. For me, there is no reason they can’t live together in the already/but not yet reality of the Kingdom of God. The world Jesus entered into 2,000 years ago was wracked by sickness, hunger, war, death, and injustice. The light of forgiveness and grace that Jesus brought into our world and into our hearts burns brightly through that darkness. The darker it gets, the brighter the light! I love to celebrate that light of Christ while also waiting for the fullness of that light to dawn. And I know that I don’t wait alone. I wait with all of my brothers and sisters around the world, but especially with those that are suffering. And I know that all of us wait – not just with each other – but also with all of Creation.
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor, 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.Romans 8:19-23
There is solidarity in this waiting. There is hope in this waiting. Yes, I even find that there is peace, joy, and love in this waiting for the arrival of Jesus. So I invite you to join me. Pick up a good Advent devotional, create your own playlist of Advent songs (I’m happy to share mine), make an Advent wreath and watch the light grow with each prayer as we approach Christmas Day. May God grant you and your family the hope, peace, joy, and love of Christ!