For most of my life, Advent was nothing more than a calendar with chocolates hidden behind little doors. But I know now the Advent season teaches a spiritual practice that goes against our instant-gratification culture: the practice of saying “Ugh!”
Grieve for What is Broken
For four years now, I’ve used the lectionary, beginning with Advent in late November/early December. While Advent seemed strange to me at first, here’s why I now need it:
In 2014 Advent began the Sunday after some of the most troubling events of Ferguson.
In 2015 Advent began soon after the attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
In November 2016, we were still reeling after one of the most contentious elections in US history.
In 2017 we come to Advent after a year filled with natural disasters, mass shootings, and a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations.
How can we lead our people in truth if we expect them to be happy at a time like this?
During the 2014 events in Ferguson, I followed the news with my teenage kids. They were visibly disturbed. One tearfully said, “It just makes me so sad,” and the other said, “I wish we could fix it.” I found myself in a difficult place. No parent wants her kids to feel pain. I was tempted to distract from the turmoil and pain by putting on a Christmas movie, but ultimately I restrained myself. It was a strange thing to look in my grieving children’s faces and to hear myself saying, “I’m glad you feel that way.”
When an annual season is repeatedly referenced with the word Merry, it won’t always feel right. There’s nothing worse than to be told at every turn “Merry this!” and “Happy that!” when life is painful. Jesus’ title is right there in the name of this season, but if celebrating Jesus means forcing a smile in a world that’s broken, with hearts that are broken, our faith seems cruel.
Hope for What is Being Made New
Advent teaches us a prophetic posture: to simultaneously see what is broken and hope for what is being made new.
I saw this for the first time during Advent 2015. That year I felt called to pray for healing for folks who seemed beyond hope. I sympathized so much with their suffering I could not imagine anything else for them. The only logical response, to me, was grief.
Meanwhile, I was preparing my sermon for that week. The lectionary’s choice of Scripture passages included the story of God telling Jeremiah to buy a field in Judah. It seemed obscure and not particularly Christmas-y. The people of Israel were being dragged off to exile; God’s Promised Land was being ripped out from under their feet. In this time of great upheaval, God commanded Jeremiah to do something odd: to buy a field in his beloved homeland—the land he was about to lose—and to seal up the deed in a jar so it would last a long time. As Jeremiah looked out on war and destruction, God told him stories of future vineyards in that place and promised him the people of Israel would return one day. With the sound of siege in his ears, Jeremiah handed over his money—17 whole shekels of silver—for a piece of land that was being taken by the Babylonians! It was an act of faith in God’s promises of return.
Suddenly this passage came alive to me, and the Lord challenged me: “The people you are praying for will certainly be healed, whether in this life or the next.” My imagination began to awaken at the prospect. I heard God say, “Dance now for the healing yet to come.”
If I really believed these friends would be made whole, then why wouldn’t I celebrate it?
Although my heart was as heavy as my feet, out of obedience I chose to dance. I did it alone and in the dark so I wouldn’t have to confront my own clumsiness, but as I did, eventually something happened in my heart. A little ember of hope was stirred. As I danced, tentatively, I imagined myself celebrating with multitudes at the wedding feast of the Lamb, dancing beside those who were currently crippled by illness, unable to dance in this life. I imagined their future healing, and that gave me hope to keep praying.
In Advent we step into the shoes of those who waited so long for the Messiah. Because we’ve seen that promise fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, we are free to hope that we will see the promise of his return fulfilled, as well. Our culture expects us to be happy or sad, but we live in a broken world being made new. Jeremiah’s deed in a jar said, “We are in exile and we are going home one day.”
My dancing in my despair said, “My heart is breaking and all things will be restored one day.” God promises us that, in this world, we will have trouble and Jesus has overcome this world.
What a ridiculous thing to dance when our hearts are breaking! But that is our calling: to be the people most honest about what is broken, most able to sit with others in pain, and at the same time to know something better than the pain.
We dance not to avoid reality or numb ourselves, but to heal our own hearts.
We dance as an act of faith that things are at work beyond our seeing or understanding.
We dance as testimony to each other and to the world.
Just like Jeremiah, it will cost us something and we will look strange. As I prepared to preach that Jeremiah Advent sermon, I knew it was an odd message. Would it seem frivolous? Insensitive? But that sermon described something new to my congregation. It inspired despairing people to do something that spoke of an alternate reality. How could we express hope in tangible ways, like Jeremiah’s deed in a jar, like my dancing in the dark, to help stretch our imaginations?
I asked them these questions:
If you really believed Jesus was coming again, what would you do?
If you really believed Jesus was making all things new, how would you live?
What does it look like for you to dance for the healing to come?
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas has short readings from various writers including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Madeleine L'Engle, Martin Luther, Kathleen Norris, Henri Nouwen, Philip Yancey, and Soren Kierkegaard.
Advent Conspiracy provides resources for alternate ways to engage with Advent, including the book Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World? by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder.
Fuller Seminary has created a video called “Yearning and Promise” exploring Advent and the expectant longing for the birth of Christ through cityscapes, wilderness, and water, with Scripture passages drawn from Isaiah 40 and Matthew 1.
Music for Advent:
“Spirit, Pour Out,” by Urban Doxology
“O Come, Messiah, Come,” by Isaac Wardell
“Savior of the Nations, Come,” by Cardiphonia
Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor.