The problem with Advent is that it comes around every single year. Again. And again. And then yet again. As best we can tell, Christians have kept some version of preparation for Christ’s appearing among us–days of repentance and longing and holy stillness–since the late 400’s. Generation after generation, names and stories mostly forgotten, have fasted and prayed and lit candles and set their hope on One coming who would make the world right, who would tend to every tear, snuff out every injustice, and lift every weary heart.
But of course there hasn’t been a single Advent in all these centuries when evil men did not stalk the innocent, when disease did not steal the young, when our heartaches over our broken relationships, broken dreams, and broken promises did not crush and maim. This Advent is no different. Sadly, by all accounts, next Advent will be the same.
And yet we press into these days with steady hands and a faith that seems almost belligerent in its audacity. We touch flame to wick, and we hum those haunting hymns. We bend in prayer, and we steel ourselves for our night-watches. We return again to this story, enacting once more the long, hope-filled narrative–not because we have certainty that this Advent (or any hour before we breathe our last) will finally make all the promises come true. We do not embrace Advent as a kind of elaborate denial, a way to play-act that the harshness or sorrow are not so bad as we’ve feared.
Just the opposite. We return to Advent again because of exactly this problem, an inescapable predicament as old as humanity. No matter how hard we try, no matter how ingenious our leaders, no matter our advancements, no matter our triumphs, no matter our very best intentions–we cannot ever, ever undo all the harm we repeatedly do to one another, all the pain we have set loose in our world.
In a dinner conversation recently with someone I love, we shared our heaviness and disappointment. There was fear of the future, regret over the past. After we finished our bowls of soup, we sat quietly, realizing that words failed. There were only tears. Tears over what we could not fix. Tears over the helplessness we must own, and tears for the grace we must cling to as our salvation.
This is the problem of Advent, and this is why we again light the candles and sing songs of hope in the long, long night. We do not need to “feel” Advent–that is not the point. Rather, we allow ourselves to be embraced by Advent’s true story. We trust the One who promises to be God with us, even amid our many searing pains. We relinquish our life into the hands of the One who promises to hold us near–and to one day undo every sorrow, mend every wound, and make the whole earth aflame with love’s fire.