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A Different Sort of Advent

Posted on December 15, 2020 by Jenn Zatopek

As I pen this Advent reflection, the world rocks in turmoil. Our world is ravaged by the deadly Coronavirus with over 1.1 million dead worldwide. Systemic racism and its practices continue flourishing even as sustained movements like Black Lives Matter push back against these evils. United States President Donald Trump has perpetuated oppressive practices through his vitriolic rhetoric, and many unjust policies have left children separated from their families, Black and Brown bodies dead from violent police brutality, the earth worn down from violent climate policies, the vicious spread of hate on the LGBTQIA2+ communities, lack of proper education and housing resources and other moral failings (to say the least).

As we confront these realities, we are inundated with sweeping social changes as we navigate this new world of Coronavirus living. Depression and suicidal thoughts are soaring, and trends show that the numbers will rise as wintertime approaches. Social distancing measures, meant to protect us from the deadly pestilence, weaken our social networks due to lack of community gatherings and outright fear of connection. We have our own heartaches and challenges too, our own personal battles and triumphs to share and celebrate with others. But when we lose touch with one another, we suffer in myriad ways.

What was it like for you to read this so far? Do you acknowledge your feelings or tune them out? Can you allow yourself and those suffering the honor of your presence? Take three deep breaths and let each of them out with a sigh. Know that God and the Spirit who “makes prayers out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.” are praying with you now. (Rom. 8:26). Take comfort in knowing our hearts are large enough to bear these pains. 

***

Advent is the time when we the church prepare our hearts for the Incarnation, or Christ being born to us. Scripture readings focus on ancient prophecies, pleas for restoration, and future hopes for Jesus to alleviate suffering and on how the church can help in the work of redemption in the world. 

Advent is both a reenactment of the past and a shared expectation for the future. It is meant to be a time of yearning for Christ’s birth but also a longing for His second coming when He will bring full restoration and healing to the earth. We are meant, I think, to experience a bit of impatience as yearning implies a sense of incompleteness.

But often, this season is overlooked in favor of the cultural trappings of Christmastime. It is hard to market waiting, and much easier, it seems, to distract ourselves from pain through numbing behaviors like compulsive shopping sprees, alcohol and drug abuse, or insane busyness. With the relative ease of Internet buying and cultural pressure to go in debt for the holiday, the consumption of Christmas is an all-to-easy fix. 

It is hard to sit with our uncomfortable feelings this Advent. We are already weary in the waiting.

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Our Advent this year delivers us a strange and unexpected gift along with the birth of Christ among us: lament. This year, perhaps more than other recent years, demands a different sort of response, one that honors our collective weariness and makes room for the future joy of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. With a grueling year of personal and communal loss, we can admit that we have experienced horror and shock, growth and goodness, rage and despair, heartache and delight right here and now even as we make our way with gritty hope toward Christmas Day. God longs for us to sit with our disquiet long enough so we might see Him in our pain.

Advent scriptures are replete with lament verses, giving us succor on the journey. Isaiah prophesied that Christ would be “despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.” (Isa. 53:3), a hopeful reminder that God walks in solidarity with us. He is well aware of the pains of being human, of living in a blessed Body here on earth. Christ has not abandoned us to our fears, heartaches, and struggles. He walks with us even now.

The birth story of Christ was tinged with lament and sorrow. Even after His birth, Mary and Joseph with little Jesus escaped into Egypt as they waited out Herod’s bloodthirsty vengeance against children in his own community. Saint Matthew notes starkly the firstborn sons killed by Herod’s wicked decree fulfilled an a grievous prophecy from Jeremiah. The prophet’s words startle us in their intensity and sorrow: “A voice was heard in Ramah / weeping and great mourning / Rachel weeping for her children / and refusing to be comforted / because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18).

Even in Advent, God honors the brokenhearted among us, never failing to show us how we might learn to speak the love language of lament. 

Maybe another reason that we need to lament the injustice in our world this Advent is to move us to collaboration with others, thereby finding joy. In this way, lamenting in Advent allows us to acknowledge our communal struggles, let these sorrows touch our hearts, and move out into the world and help the suffering. There, we find joy in doing good because we affirm that all of us have suffered and can offer something beautiful to a hurting world. As writer and therapist KJ Ramsey has written in her debut memoir This Too Shall Last “This is the church’s story: sorrow comes before the song.” Our expressed sorrow can lead us straight toward lasting joy, that of helping others. 

Perhaps this Christmas instead of going into debt and buying more goods, we could donate those funds to local charities that provide food, diapers, and household goods. Many of our local charities are in desperate need of money due to Coronavirus job loss. Instead of cruise tickets, one could volunteer at socially distanced soup kitchens or distributing food at donations centers, thereby reducing loneliness and relishing doing good for others. The possibilities of alleviating suffering are as endless as one’s creativity. And as we see from a collective level, our mysterious and loving God surprises us. Isn’t it strange to think that acknowledging sorrow could lead us to ever deepening joy?

When asked about Advent, the poet Wendell Berry shared “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” This is the mystery of Advent, that amid the grim reality of our present-day struggles in Coronavirus living, with all its sorrows and frustrations, God can and will birth something new that transcends our circumstances and offers us real and lasting joy. And it is with this assured hope that we can wait with each other, turning towards one other with hard-won joy, knowing we are a people of both honest lament and enduring hope even in the dark. 

(Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash)

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