It’s a weird holiday season this year. I’m not so sure I have ever entered this season in such a fraught place. Last year, yes, I was struggling with what I later realized was clinical anxiety, but this year feels like a malaise bigger than me. It’s not just a darkness in my thoughts, but it seems like darkness is all around me. The election seems to have emboldened some of the darkest parts of our national identity. We look around and see reasons to fear and worry. Many of our neighbors are afraid and worrying too. Wondering what the new presidency will mean for their lives in very real terms.
None of this feels very Holly Jolly Christmas. But it turns out it’s the exact right mood for Advent. We begin this season with prophecies for “a people who walked in darkness.” The Israelites had lived in exile, in slavery, in the wilderness, and under an oppressive empire. They had experienced war, famine, and death. I can relate to them now more than ever. Times feel uncertain. The future often looks bleak.
Advent is a time of waiting and expecting and daring to hope in the worst of circumstances. As we’re literally anticipating the birth of a savior, pregnancy is often a fit metaphor for Advent, for this waiting time. I didn’t really grasp these metaphors until I actually was pregnant. It’s a time of joy, for sure, but also a time filled with worries and discomfort. During Advent 2011, I was pregnant-to-bursting with twins and had just found out that Claire had spina bifida. The joy of that season was also tempered with sorrow and worry, uncertainty about what our life would look like with a disability in the midst of it.
We are in such a dark time now. We feel stretched, swollen, tender, emotional, and concerned. We are restless. It may not be pregnancy heartburn keeping us up at night, but there is a tightness in our chests. Our hearts do burn a little. And though we have hope for new life, we know there will be much pain in the attaining of that joy.
A familiar verse from Romans comes to mind:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Right now, we are the weary world, not yet the one that rejoices. We are the people who walk in great darkness. We are captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here. We are groaning and in pain. We look around us and we do see bondage and decay.
I read a perfect piece Sunday morning by Diana Butler Bass in the Washington Post, suggesting this may be more of a “blue” advent. She notes our national blue mood, and suggests blue as an appropriate advent color, because blue is the color of the sky just before dawn. We need Advent as much as ever because
Advent recognizes a profound spiritual truth — that we need not fear the dark. Instead, wait there. Under that blue cope of heaven, alert for the signs of dawn. Watch. For you cannot rush the night. But you can light some candles. Sing some songs. Recite poetry. Say prayers.
On this, the first week of Advent, we dare to light the candle of Hope. We hope for that which we do not currently have. We hope for so much more than where we are at right now. We are not ready to jump straight into Christmas joy, but Advent doesn’t expect us to. Advent sits with us in this darkness. Advent lets us feel how we feel. But it’s also a little pesky, a little optimistic. It keeps directing our attention to flickering flames and twinkling lights, reminding us that we will see a great Light. That our labors will produce joy. That our waiting will not last forever. That while the sorrow may last for a night, and those nights seem oh-so-long in the bleak midwinter, joy comes in the morning, and there is a bit of light on the horizon. And so I too will light a candle. I will try to remind myself to hope.
My prayer this week is from my church’s corporate confession on Sunday:
Hear me Lord,
grant me an ease
to breathe deeply of this moment,
this miracle of now.
Beneath the din and fury
Of great movements
and harsh news
and urgent crises,
make me attentive still
to good news,
to small occasions,
and the grace of what is possible
for me to be,
that I may miss neither my neighbor’s gift
Nor my enemy’s need.