As we approach Christmas this year, we are confronted with an uncomfortable question: Is there really anything worth celebrating?
We’re now in the season of Advent, an annual rhythm meant to slow us down as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Desiring an escape from the difficulties of this year, many of us declared several weeks ago that the Christmas season had already begun.
Advent is meant to be a time of hope, joy, love, and peace. These are beautiful virtues, but this year they risk sounding hollow. This time last year, while many Americans were worried about pumpkin pie and Black Friday deals, a deadly virus was silently starting to spread. Most of us knew nothing about it then, but with hundreds of thousands dead in our country alone, we certainly know about it now. Can we speak of hope in such a time?
In our efforts to curb this destruction, we’ve seen other predictable casualties, any one of which would be devastating in a “normal” year. Staggering numbers of people have lost their jobs. Business owners have shut their doors. Schools, in their shift to remote education, not only laid an added weight on struggling parents and teachers, but also restricted one of the most reliable safety nets for vulnerable and impoverished children. Can we speak of joy in such a time?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of the strain brought on by the coronavirus was then paired with yet another American summer marked by racial strife. Ahmaud Arbery, then Breonna Taylor, then George Floyd. Innocent black people were killed, and in several cases, video evidence allowed us to witness the horror. Can we speak of peace in such a time?
Protests arose demanding justice and change. In some cities, these protests became violent. Pundits rushed to interpret these events, often pointing fingers at the “bad guys” on the other side. In many of our churches, the broader societal rifts began to manifest as well . These rifts only deepened as we weathered yet another divisive presidential election.
Can we speak of love in such a time?
As we limp along to the close of 2020, a year marked by violence, injustice, division, and death, it is worth asking: What place does a quiet liturgy of Advent have in such a chaotic, turbulent world? I would argue that we need Advent now more than ever.
A Prophetic Promise
Contrary to the Hallmark myth, Christmas is not a season of good vibes and tasty treats (though I’m down for both). The context of Christmas is injustice and death—and it has been from the very beginning. To understand this, we need only remind ourselves of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, God’s people, Israel, had been in exile for 400 years. God had warned them, time and time again, that if they failed to listen to him, they would lose everything. But they would not listen. So God sent nearby nations—first Assyria, then Babylon—to act as his instruments of judgment.
The prophetic depictions of this time are nearly too graphic to imagine. We read of an entire people, God’s people, either killed or enslaved hundreds of miles from their homes. Of women being raped by the conquering armies (Lam. 5:11). Of parents so desperate for food that they eat their own children (Lam. 2:20). Of Israel’s last king forced to watch his sons slaughtered in front of him, only then to have his eyes gouged out—so the last image to remain, forever, would be that of his dead family (Jer. 52:10–11).
And then, after this gruesome conquest, came the long, lonely period of exile. God seemed silent. God’s people, surrounded by injustice and death, could only suffer and cry out in lament.
As we open the pages of the New Testament, the story begins to change. God’s silence has ended. No prophet or angel had spoken for centuries. But suddenly angels begin to appear, bringing a promise: God’s King is coming, and Israel’s long, lonely exile is coming to an end.
Isaiah captured the unlikely hope of this period with his prophetic promise, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Is. 9:2). For those who for generations have existed in darkness, the promise of light might seem too good to be true. Would God’s people dare to hope again, after their hopes had been dashed so often before?
I confess, had I been a Jew in the first century, I would have found hope foreign, almost offensive.
And yet, the Gospels record many of God’s people responding in hope. Mary responds with confidence in God’s plan (Luke 1:46–55). Anna and Simeon rejoice at the sight of the newborn Jesus (Luke 2:25–38). These women and men hint that with Christ’s arrival, darkness really might give way to light. But this thrill of hope is tremulous and fragile. Jesus’ birth moves Herod to jealous anger, and he responds with horrifically familiar violence, murdering Jewish children in an attempt to kill Jesus (Matt. 2:16).
The injustices of the Exile, Matthew recognizes, have not disappeared:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more. (Matt. 2:18 ESV; Jer. 31:15)
To many readers, ancient as well as modern, this may seem like a failure. Certainly God’s first act to overturn this long period of injustice would be a decisive act of justice and victory? Instead, we see the weak and vulnerable put to the sword. We hear Rachel weeping, again, even as the Son of God comes to earth. Had something gone wrong?
You Do Not Weep Alone
The Christmas story is dark, but what prevents us from reading this story in despair is a name: “Immanuel.” First mentioned by the prophet Isaiah, “Immanuel” means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23; 7:14). Jesus’ birth delivers far more than Israel expected. They expected a king who would take them back to their homeland. And God sent that. But God sent much more: He sent himself.
Christmas commemorates the moment when God entered into our story in flesh and blood. He entered in the middle of the story, in the midst of injustice and death. This is good news for us, especially when we’re living a story of injustice and death, too.
Advent isn’t about an escape from the darkness of the world into a false bastion of tranquility. Advent is a discipline that trains us to experience longing, just as the Jews did before Jesus’ birth. Without this sense of real longing, Christmas offers no sense of real hope. And if we already sense longing for healing and lament over injustice, we are that much closer to the spirit of Advent than we first thought.
One day, God will end all injustice and death. But Christmas reminds us that God’s first step in ending injustice and death was to submit himself to injustice and death.
Many of us enter Advent this year crying out, “How long, O Lord?” We can be comforted knowing that we do not cry alone.
We cry with Rachel, for her children. We cry with Tamika Palmer, weeping for her daughter Breonna Taylor. We cry with Wanda Jones, weeping for her son Ahmaud Arbery. We cry with the hundreds of thousands of people whose loved ones have been taken by a plague.
And we cry with Jesus himself, who enters our suffering. He entered it then—poor in birth, persecuted in life, scorned in death. He enters it with us today as Immanuel, “God with us.”
So even as we weep, we do so with a thrill of hope. Hope does not stop our tears; hope gives them meaning. Hope does not remove our longing; in Christ, hope redirects it. That which we long for—justice, wholeness, healing—has a name. His name is Jesus, and he is near to the brokenhearted.
Chris Pappalardo is editor at The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. He is the co-author of One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politicsand the author of a Christmas curriculum called Advent Blocks.