Advent: A Beautiful and Sad Time of Year
Though Thanksgiving is not a part of the liturgical season of Advent, I think it fits perfectly as segue or entry point into this period of the church calendar.
Advent, after all, is about anticipating and reflecting upon the mystery that is the Incarnation: the nearly incomprehensible moment when God entered human history by becoming a baby on earth. Thanksgiving is an appropriate predecessor, as a day that we set aside to take stock of what we have, what God has done for us, the bounties and blessings and loves he’s bestowed us. Thanksgiving gets us in the mode of self-effacing gratitude, but it doesn’t end there. It prepares our hearts and minds for the bigger, more solemn, more awesome experience of meditating upon God’s greatest and most mind-blowing gift ever: himself.
It puts everything into perspective. On Thanksgiving, I was amazed and shamed at all the things I have. I was thankful for all the usual stuff (family, friends, a house, my health) as well as some unusual stuff (walnuts, synthesizers, Japanese people, aging), but mostly I was just overwhelmed by the fact that I was even alive: that I existed when I just as well might not have existed, and that God orchestrated it for some spectacularly unfathomable reason.
It made me reflect on the preciousness of life, and how newborn babies often make us say things like “isn’t life a miracle” or some variation of “that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Which is weird, because babies are really not all that beautiful, in the way we typically conceive of beauty. They are actually a bit deformed and unseemly, what with their frog-like appendages flailing around and their crinkly, crying faces, etc. But we nevertheless are floored by the miracle and beauty of them. And I think it is our response to the very idea of life: of an existence that starts at a defined point, a someone that holds the promise of the world and an unknowing affirmation of everything in its gradually opening eyes. Above all, it’s a sense of wonder. How and where does this little person come into being? Why do we love it and it us? What is its purpose? It’s the supreme mystery of existence.
It’s fitting, then, that God chose to enter our human world as a newborn baby. He could have appeared out of thin air as a 21 year old, or as a 30-year-old prophet ready for some serious ministry. But he chose to start where everyone else starts: in the womb. His incarnation was always about working through—not outside of—creation to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand. And a baby who is born and grows up and dies is something we can understand. It was God coming down to our level to bless our unfortunate little existence by becoming part of it. And his name was Emmanuel—“God With Us.”
Speaking of that, I highly recommend the advent devotional book, God With Us, featuring essays and meditations by the likes of Scott Cairns, Kathleen Norris, and Luci Shaw. In the introduction to the book, which I read last night (Day 1 of Advent), Eugene Peterson captures so much of what I have been feeling about Advent. He writes:
There can’t be very many of us for whom the sheer fact of existence hasn’t rocked us back on our heels. We take off our sandals before the burning bush. We catch our breath at the sight of a plummeting hawk. “Thank you, God.” We find ourselves in a lavish existence in which we feel a deep sense of kinship—we belong here; we say thanks with our lives to Life. And not just “Thanks” or “Thank It,” but “Thank You.” Most of the people who have lived on this planet Earth have identified this You with God or gods. This is not just a matter of learning our manners, the way children are taught to say thank you as a social grace. It is the cultivation of adequateness within ourselves to the nature of reality, developing the capacity to sustain an adequate response to the overwhelming gift and goodness of life.
Wonder is the only adequate launching pad for exploring this fullness, this wholeness, of human life. Once a year, each Christmas, for a few days at least, we and millions of our neighbors turn aside from our preoccupations with life reduced to biology or economics or psychology and join together in a community of wonder. The wonder keeps us open-eyed, expectant, alive to life that is always more than we can account for, that always exceeds our calculations, that is always beyond anything we can make.
I love that Advent simultaneously forces us away from ourselves and our petty problems while also, in a way, affirming them. It’s a season of denying our self and our possibility in the face of the wholly Other that is the mysterious, Incarnate Emmanuel. But it’s also a chance for us to focus, to synthesize our various desires, issues, concerns, and identities into a cohesive oneness with the bewildering fact that we are here, and so is God. There’s a reason why we sing “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” We share a planet—the dirt, air, water, DNA—with the creator of the universe. This is the most empowering and humbling fact of history, and the weight of it is immense. It is the reason Advent is historically a very solemn season: because the Incarnation cannot be taken lightly.
As I enter into Advent this year, I’m burdened by just as many hopes and fears as the next guy. There is pain and regret in my heart, love and confusion, physical and emotional imperfection, and immense exhaustion. I sometimes just want to drink eggnog or mulled wine and listen to Over the Rhine’s Darkest Night of the Year (for the record, probably the best Christmas album of all time) while languishing in self-pity and world weariness as stocks and bombs carry the torch of history’s tumultuous march.
And Advent accepts all that. It thrives on unsettledness, uncertainty, and despair. Which is kind of bleak for a holiday season that is typically thought of as the merriest season of all. Until we recognize that our pain makes Advent all the more meaningful—to look forward, expectantly, longingly, to the moment when all the pieces (of our lives, of history, of heaven and earth) come together in a monstrous cymbal crash that reverberates in every corner and cranny of the concert hall.