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You don’t need me to tell you about the state of our world.
You know about the perverse reverse-Robin Hood tax-cutting bill, our cruel-for-cruelty’s-sake immigration policies, the almost-daily revelations of sexual abuse, and the dangerous game of nuclear chicken being played by a couple of childish national leaders. You know about the latest climate change catastrophe, the struggle of poor people who work hard and play by the rules, the ongoing injustices of racism and white privilege, and the totally preventable tragedy of gun violence.
You don’t need me to tell you about these things, or to remind you that they are not part of God’s plan. Given the immorality of our politics and the utter disregard of some leaders for the rule of law, you may not even need me to convince you of the reality of evil. Lately there is more evidence of it than we can bear.
No, you don’t need me to tell you about the state of the world. We know it all too well. We hate to admit it, but some days it feels like the only way to get on with our lives, the only way to take care of business, be faithful to the people we love, and keep our hearts and heads above water is to tune out the world. We hate that it’s come to this, but sometimes the world seems like just one more thing we need to protect our children from.
We don’t really need anyone to tell us about that.
What we do need to tell each other, what we do need Advent to remind us of, is that it is our very world—this beautiful, broken, messed-up, and sometimes just plain evil world—that God so loves. We need Advent to remind us that it is our difficult relationships God seeks to reconcile, our personal stories God wants to enliven, our darkness into which God’s love-light shines, our wounded hearts that God longs to heal, and our very skin God would die to inhabit.
As much as we might long for a superhero God who would tear open the heavens, beam herself down, wipe out our enemies, and make everything right, Advent assures us that while God is ever present and ever coming, it is up to us to prepare the way. Advent reminds us that as much as God longs to live among us and walk with us, we must make room for that to happen. As much as we we might long for the sweet baby Jesus of Christmas Eve, Advent reminds us that Christ’s coming will turn things upside-down: bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty-handed. As much as we might sometimes despair of this kind of justice ever happening, as much as we might doubt that God has anything to do with our world, Advent encourages us to open our eyes and hearts, to watch for signs of the Holy in our midst, to stay alert to all the unexpected ways Christ is coming to us again. And as much as we want Christ and Christmas to come right this very minute, Advent reminds us that all good things take time, that we will have to wait.
It may sound daunting, all this talk of waiting and watching, making room and preparing the way. It sounds like work—so different from our fairy-tale ideas of a joyful, relaxing Christmas gathered ‘round the tree with our loved ones. But the spiritual practices of Advent, the things we do to prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming, are really no different than the practices for a good and meaningful and Spirit-filled life. Right?
Advent comes to prepare our hearts for the fulfillment of our deepest longings. Advent comes to remind us of all the ways our lovesick God reaches out to us and lives with us. Christ’s coming show us that there is nowhere other than this messed-up world God would rather be, nowhere more than in our aching hearts. Wake up! Advent says. Look and see!
It is into this world, into your lives, into your fears and despair, into your mortal body, into your daily life that Love comes with skin on, that deliverance appears in the least and the lost, that power is manifest in weakness, that hope is forged in suffering and loss, and joy arrives as pure grace.
Wake up! Advent says. Amid all your busyness, all the things you would do for God, stop and simply revel in God’s heartsick love for you. Be still and pay attention to your own heart. What are your deepest longings? What is it you most hope for? Where are the hurting places, what are the situations and relationships you have all but given on you? What are the fears you cannot bear to acknowledge?
What would it mean to invite Jesus into those places? How do we invite Christ into those places? How do we prepare the way? This is, after all, the sacred and serious and life-giving work of Advent and of life. This reminder that God loves us and our world, this awareness that God longs to heal us in the broken places and make beloved and transformative community out of a collection of searching souls, this invitation to embrace hope in the face of evil—these are some of the gifts of Advent.
We can rail against injustice any time; we know it will be there. We can wallow in despair over how things are; God knows that sometimes that seems the only logical response. We can live as if this is all there is, and we can live in denial of all that hurts, all that worries, all that leaves us unsettled and unhappy.
Instead, Advent invites us to walk a more challenging, more life-giving path: To live into the sometimes scary reality of how things are and at the same time take the faithful risk of opening ourselves fully to the promise of how things are meant to be. Who and how and what we are meant to be. This is how God came into the world, all unprotected flesh and blood and hopes and feelings. And this is how we invite Jesus into the world and into our lives: wide-eyed and open-hearted, vulnerable and real.
Advent reminds us that, as Victoria Safford says,
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope—not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges; nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.”
No, Advent hope is “a very different, sometimes very lonely place—the place of truth-telling, about [our] own soul[s] first of all …” Advent hope—the God-given hope of this life, is a “place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which [we] see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which [we] glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle—and we stand there, beckoning and calling, [watching and waiting,] telling [one another] what we are seeing, asking [others] what they see.
This hope asks a lot of us—trust, engagement, courage, love, commitment. Sometimes it is all we can do to stand at the intersection of despair and hope, waiting for someone to help us cross the street in the right direction. Sometimes hope is less feeling than choice—a decision to open our hearts to what seems impossible, to ground ourselves in extravagant love, to trust an audacious promise, to follow a difficult, sometimes lonely path into a tomb and out the other side.
My prayer for you this Advent, my prayer for us all, is that we become more aware not only of Christ’s presence among us, but also of our need for him. That we become more attuned to our longings for God’s goodness, and more intentional about making room and preparing the way. That we might share with one another the signs of God’s presence, the glimpses of glory here in the muck. My hope is that we might more fully live into the deepest prayer of Advent:
Come, Lord Jesus! Come here. Come now. Come again.