Practicing Advent in a Time of Turbulence
Never before have I been so eager for Advent to begin. This past church year began with the San Bernardino shootings. We saw the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Terence Crutcher, the ambush of police in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, and the horror of the Pulse nightclub massacre. We witnessed the growing Syrian refugee crisis, the continued violence of ISIS, water contamination in Flint, as well as deadly earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires all over the world. And of course we walked through a presidential election, which revealed and continues to reveal deep divisions, hostility, and distrust within our society.
It’s been a rough year. Collectively, we’re all aching. Advent could not come soon enough.
For me, there have been years in which practicing Advent took discipline; I had to hold myself back from leaping to the Christmas merriment. This year, I could not jump to a holly jolly Christmas if I tried. This year, I know in my very bones that I need this space to stop and grieve the brokenness, disappointment, and darkness. This year, I collapsed into Advent like I was falling into the arms of an old friend. There, I’m held by my local and global church community as together we mourn, wait, ache, and sing “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel.”
My friend and mentor, Father Kenny, recently said to me, “You can’t continue in turbulence for long. After turbulence, you need still waters.” I think we could all collectively use some still water.
But what do the “still waters” of Advent look like?
Eastern and Western liturgical traditions both celebrate Advent, but our practices have a slightly different flavor and focus. In Eastern Orthodox churches, Advent is a penitential season, a “little Lent.” In Western liturgical traditions, we emphasize preparation for Christ’s coming, which certainly involves repentance but also entails rest, hope, longing, and quiet.
Advent holds in tension two complementary but seemingly paradoxical postures of faith: repentance and rest.
One perk of living in the Northern hemisphere is that the natural seasons roughly track with the church calendar. The Lenten bleakness of March gives way to the rebirth of springtime, usually right around Easter. In Advent, the days darken, and then, right around Christmas, the hours of light begin to lengthen again. In these long December days, everything in nature—including our bodies—wants to slow down and curl up. Bears go into hibernation, trees lose their leaves, birdsong quiets. We are tired and need rest.
Yet, as we begin this new church year and prepare for the coming of the King, we also need repentance.
We Christians not only grieve the sin and brokenness in the world but in ourselves, as well. I have to stop, name, and repent for the ways I’ve contributed to this global lack of peace—even in my small, ordinary sphere. Together as the church, we recognize and proclaim that we are not innocent observers of what is wrong with the world; we are implicated in its evil. Its violence, hatred, and darkness breaks our hearts, and then, with horror, we find violence, hatred, and darkness alive and well inside of us—in our treatment of both enemies and loved ones, in our false worship and self-obsession.
Isaiah tells us that "in repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” To me, the pain and rigor of repentance seem at odds with the comfort and ease of rest, but in Scripture and in Advent, we find them entwined. After this hard year, we can rest in the certainty of God’s coming kingdom even as we repent for the ways we’ve failed to live up to the vision of that kingdom.
In Liturgy of the Ordinary, I examine how the liturgical calendar reminds us that “we are oriented to our future hope, yet we do not try to escape from our present reality, from the real and pressing brokenness and suffering in the world.” Because we hold repentance and rest together, we don’t belittle or ignore what has been dark, twisted, and disappointing in this past year. Rather, we are called to face it squarely while trusting in a God who will prevail in the end.
In his description of Isaiah’s call to repentance and rest, Christopher Seitz writes:
Salvation and strength are the consequence of firm trust and quiet confidence in God’s abiding attention and concern for [his people]… Amidst the swirling claims of clever politicians, deceitful prophets, crazed priests, and unjust rulers, there remains another way, and the prophet never tires of insisting that it is the only way.
Seitz is referring here to the political and cultural realities of ancient Israel, but his description sounds eerily contemporary. He goes on to say that repentance, rest, quietness, and confidence were the “opposite dispositions” of Isaiah’s time. In our particular historical moment, I find some comfort in knowing that throughout history, God’s people have been called over and over to repentance and rest in the midst of pain, injustice, and turbulence.
We live in a noisy culture where we often feel we have to scream just to be heard, where the din of social media outrage overpowers the call of our embodied communities, where it seems impossible to hear a still, small voice. Advent bids us to quiet down, repent, and lean into longing. Redemption is sneaking into our corner of the universe, just as it was announced to some unsuspecting shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth. Returning to Christ and resting in him isn’t an escape from the darkness of the world. It’s a proclamation that, in the midst of darkness, there remains another way—the only way.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and works with InterVarsity’s Women in the Academy & Professions initiative. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life(IVP, December 2016). More at TishHarrisonWarren.com.