Recently I had a conversation with a friend about Advent, and how it can be a good time for grieving. It’s a season of outer sheen, but many people are processing things in the shadows. There’s a peculiar kind of grief that hovers over the season.
In some ways, this sadness stems from the fictional idea of a “perfect” Christmas that advertisements feed us. Consumerism lures year round, but this time of year the pull is especially strong. We’re not just buying a toy or a book, we’re told cleverly, we’re buying an experience, a memory, a feeling. But then the day comes and goes, and whatever problems we have are still problems. The idea of a perfect Christmas is an illusion, and the aftermath brings an aching, empty feeling.
But there’s more to it than just that. Judy Garland captures a beautiful melancholy in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. When she croons have yourself a merry little Christmas, I feel that thing I don’t quite have words for, that remembrance of childhood hopes and anticipation and wonder, mixed in with all the adult realities of my life. Christmas can be a lot of work, and I miss loved ones who aren’t around, but I’m also missing something I never actually had.
I’ve realized in the past few years, as my curiosity about the liturgical year has grown, that Advent is about homesickness for the Kingdom of God. I didn’t come to this idea myself, but it gives me language for something I’ve felt many times.
There’s an undercurrent to Advent that invites us to enter into the world’s pain more deeply. To pour from our fragile pitcher of grief into the vast ocean of sorrow and then wade out into it, letting the waves crash against our legs. To feel a little more than we let ourselves feel at other times. Our pain calls us to see each other, to see ourselves, to understand and name our longing for a different Kingdom.
someday soon, we all will be together
I love the tradition of lighting Advent candles. Each Sunday, as the tradition calls for, we light one, then two, then three, then all. Each light reminds us that we’re drawing closer to Christmas, but the unlit candles also remind us that we’re in a season of waiting.
A profound difference exists between the disappointment that comes when Christmas presents don’t actually fill our void and the sharing of grief that Advent calls us to. Both involve sadness, yes, but one points to an earthly kingdom and one points us to the upside-down kingdom where God is at work in the shadows, inviting us to join. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Rather than something to dread, setting apart a season to tune in to the pain of the world and join that world in waiting for relief is a gift. We remember our own losses, unmet expectations, “the hopes and fears of all the years” and we wait, quietly.
I’d like to learn to be better at quiet, this Advent. At rest. It’s only December 3rd but I’m feeling slightly anxious because we have no decorations up, not even those four Advent candles. I’m very much vulnerable to the illusion of a perfect Christmas. I like order, and plans, and not missing out. My instinct is to channel my anxiety, which is probably really grief, into frantic attempts at creating that illusion to make myself feel better. And it’s true: the glowing tree and the wooden Nativity and the kids’ crafts I’ve saved will make me feel good. Beauty points to its own Author. But then I think about the mess of this season. The mess of a baby on the way and no marriage certificate to make things tidy. Mary pushing out a baby in the messiest of conditions. All those months, giving a body to God, putting flesh on a Spirit, tissue differentiating into muscle and bone, taking all from a tired, vulnerable, unspeakably brave mother. It fills me with hope to realize that Mess can point to God, too.
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Ah, she knew about stillness, about rest. Can I make a space for the Child, right here? Can I find the holy space that contains the beautiful and the messy, and choose to be still in it?
This season seems to be brimming with the purest kind of rest. I don’t want illusion, not really, even though I’ll forget and chase it from time to time. I want illumination. To bring my whole, messy self to the manger, yet again.