This is the second Christmas my family will be without my dad. Even though it’s been nearly 2 years, I still think about him everyday. The hurt has never gone away; it’s always there as a dull pain in the backdrop of my mind, sometimes flaring into a sharp gash. I have never liked Christmas all that much, and this reality doesn’t make the season any better.
But with all that out there, I have been praying for Christmas to be redeemed in my mind – for God to move in my life in such a way that I come to rejoice the ecclesial community’s celebration of the incarnation of our Lord. And God is doing so, just not in the way many of us would expect: He is using darkness and lament. He is using Advent.
That darkness and lament are not associated with Christmas for most of us demonstrates the extent to which we have not only ignored the biblical events surrounding Jesus’ birth (slaughtering of the innocents by Herod!), but also the extent to which we have neglected the church’s historical observance of Advent – a time of voicing our longings, a time where we lament before God and plea for the return of His Son. A time of praying for Him to come and enact justice and bring salvation…”Come, O Come Immanuel.”
Advent is situated right before Christmas as a necessary preparation for Christmas. Without Advent Christmas becomes merely sentimentalism and context-less “good cheer.” But “peace on earth and good will toward humankind” must be placed in the larger context of the fact that in the world as we know it there is no peace on earth! No, there is much loneliness, despair, and death. There are wars and fighting, disease and pestilence, chaos and pain.
This is where Advent comes in – it acknowledges that even though we long for and expect Christ to come, and even though we look back in joy at his birth, the world is still lost in chaos and disorientation. It allows us to think and speak honestly about the condition of the world and the fact that sometimes it seems as if God has forsaken us. Advent is the church’s opportunity to lament that we are ‘the people walking in darkness’ and that we need to ‘see a great light.’ We’re lost. We’re confused. We’re cold and hurting. We’re dying. And what we need is what the Jewish people longed for 2,000 years ago – a God who wants to be involved, a God who wants to participate, to redeem, to save!
I believe my understanding of Christmas is being redeemed this year because of Advent – because I have been able to mourn and lament and express my frustrations before God. Christmas is being redeemed for me because even though my dad is not here with us, I know I have a God who I can go to in those times when that memory sears my heart. And this God will not shy away from my anger; He will not try to cover my grief in cheap sentimental, seasonal cliché’s, and He will not always seem so far away. If Christmas teaches us anything, it is that God enters into the human pain voiced in Advent, answers our call to “Come, O Come,” and invites us to join with the faithful throughout history who have longed for God’s presence amidst their pain.
Do not overlook these last days of Advent, friends. It is in the context of Advent that Christmas makes the most sense. Advent, the acknowledgement of the darkness, is an act of hope – an act of Christmas hope!