It was early December, cold and dark. Elms and maples, bare and silent, stood lonely watch over our neighbor’s home. In each window (10 or 12 at least), a single white Christmas candle lamp burned, a red bow hung from each window sill. No lights strung across the roof. No candy cane paper wrapping the mailbox or lamppost. No blow-up snowman in the yard. Just those single flickering lights, holding out against the darkness, refusing to be devoured by the night. Warm, spare beauty amid so much barrenness, chill, and gloom.
Watching that illumination, I felt such sadness and emptiness–and such beauty and gratitude. All at once. How could these emotions coexist? The interior conflict felt familiar, an old friend I’d never named nor understood. I remembered the December morning when I still lived at home, listening to an old rendition of the Nativity story on my Sears stereo, when my mom found me overcome by tears. I could not tell her whether they were tears of joy or tears of sorrow. Often, they are the same. Often, if we live honestly, one requires the other.
Advent pulls these tensions taught. Advent fixes our fatigued, jaded, sad eyes on hope and joy, but first it requires us to reckon with our longing for what we lack, with our despair over all we’ve lost, with the fear, isolation, and heaviness weighing on the sagging shoulders of this weary world. Advent is where the Christian story begins. And Advent begins in the long, dark night.
“Christian art began in grief,” David Bannon reminds us. The earliest Christian imagery exists in catacombs, stories of cross and resurrection carved into stone and painted on walls–all of it buried in graves alongside the dead. They needed a way to embrace their tears, and a way to remember Jesus’ impossible promise of a brighter day and a new world. We still do.
Christian art…the Christian story…Christian hope–they are all embedded in a world gone mad, in a life that seems abandoned or ruined, in a heart that’s shattered. That’s not where this whole thing ends, mind you. We’re heading toward goodness and wholeness and blinding love. But we begin in the sorrows. There’s no other way.
“The celebration of Advent,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. He is, and always will be now, with us in our sin, in our suffering, and at our death. We are no longer alone. God is with us and we are no longer homeless.”
During these days, we don’t go looking for sadness; we merely enact the courage to acknowledge it wherever it appears. There’s more than enough to mourn, more than enough to rattle the optimistic cheer of even the most stalwart souls. We enter the long, dark night, trusting not our own capacity to rekindle hope or our own ingenuity to overcome our many troubles. We trust the One who has come among us, the One who has become one of us (what wonder). We entrust our hopes and our futures to the One who has taken upon himself all that threatens us, the One who is trustworthy and true.