We begin Advent this year with no shortage of bad news. So consistent and unrelenting has been the sequence of never-before, beyond-the-pale, worst-yet, and, of course, unprecedented developments in 2020 that we might think ourselves un-shockable by now.
Think about it: How many times have we said, “Well, it can’t get any worse than this”—and then it does?
How many times have we thought, “Well, surely we’re turning the corner,” only to see the number of Covid-19 cases spiking again, the schools closing again, another Black person being killed by police, the hospitals overflowing again, the president golfing again, businesses closing again, bodies being stacked in refrigerated trailers again?
Raise your hand if you’re one of the few who haven’t used the word “apocalyptic” over the past nine months.
Time and again, just when we think we’ve seen it all, we hit another low, pass another grim milestone, endure another surreal news cycle.
Just how bad have things gotten?
So upended are all our normal routines, so seemingly never-ending is the list of things we can’t do and places we can’t go, that some American children have begun worrying that Santa won’t come this year.
So real is the children’s anguish that none other that Dr. Anthony Fauci has weighed in. Seriously. To repeat another over-used phrase of recent months: I am not making this up.
Santa has, of course, been following public health guidelines and isolating, and since he’s not making his regular appearances at shopping malls and destination stores, some children have worried that he and his 12 reindeer might stay home on Christmas Eve or, if they do venture out, that Santa might ho-ho-ho some coronavirus particles into the air while leaving his gifts and enjoying some milk and cookies.
Not to worry, Dr. Fauci says.
"Santa is exempt from this,” Dr. Fauci told USA TODAY, “because Santa, of all the good qualities, has a lot of good innate immunity.”
Forgive me for saying—again—that I am not making this up.
Forgive me for bringing up something (Santa) that has, of course, nothing to do with Advent or the true meaning of Christmas.
But what clearer, more heartbreaking sign of how bad things are is there than that (a) children are worried and afraid, and (b) among the things they’re worried about is that, on top of everything else taken away from them will be one of their most cherished traditions. We don’t have to believe in Santa to feel concern for our traumatized children.
Nor do we have to approve of Santa-based traditions to find ourselves relating to children who are afraid of losing yet another special thing this year. Nor do we have to be children to be feeling afraid of, or worried about, any number of things as Advent begins. Actually, it may be, as it so often is, that we owe the children a debt of gratitude for helping us to get in touch with our own feelings—everything from wondering if Jesus will come this year to whether our loved ones will succumb to the virus. Everything from fear, worry, cynicism, self-sufficiency, and numbness to wonder, vulnerability, awe, delight, need, joy, and hope.
Longing and imperfection, disaster and mystery are, after all, where Advent begins—with the uncomfortable awareness that our present circumstances leave us needing something beyond our own capacities. With a yearning for something or someone to take us beyond the predictable routines of our lives to the touchstone of meaning and purpose and wonder. And, in the most dire circumstances, an almost desperate desire for rescue and deliverance.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, the seemingly abandoned Hebrew exiles lament to God. O that you would save us, O that you would deliver us as in times of old. O that you would give us some sign that you arestill with us. O that you would forgive us and claim us again as your beloveds. O that you would give us another chance.
O that all the pandemic pain and loss would end and we could get back—not to normal, exactly, but to something even better, normal-plus, normal with a new appreciation for all the things we had taken for granted, normal with a new awareness of the wonder that is life.
One of the many great gifts of Advent is its invitation to shift our focus from ourselves and our circumstances to what God has done and what God is about to do—for us and for the world that God so loves.
After these long months of disruption and distance, and with no end in sight, Advent reminds us that the Word becomes flesh for just such a time as this; that the Creator of all becomes a helpless human baby so that we might know that we, too, are children of God made in the divine image; that we might always know that, no matter the circumstances, our servant-God chooses again and again to be with us.
Advent reminds us that Christ is still here, Christ will come again, and that God’s Love is forever breaking into our world and opening our hearts.
Listen to this adaptation of a Madeleine L’Engle poem that we use every year as the invitation to our Longest Night service:
Christ didn’t wait ’til the world was ready, ’til nations were at peace.
Christ came when the heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
Christ didn’t wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
Christ didn’t wait ’til hearts were pure.
He came to a people wounded within and without.
To a world like ours, he came,
and his Light would not go out.
Christ came to a world that didn’t mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
To come to him and give our feelings voice
we need not wait ’til all is well.
For it was to share our grief and touch our pain,
he came with Love: Emmanuel.
And so it is that in this most difficult of years, when we have lost so much and the future is unclear, Advent reminds us that God’s love takes on human form and dwells with us for just such a time as this.
Now, you may recognize the phrase “for such a time as this” as coming from the Hebrew Bible story of Esther, who was told that perhaps she had come to the king’s court for the very purpose of saving the Jews in Persia from genocide. And precisely because the stakes for her people and their future were so high, she should risk her life.
You may think it odd that we are taking for our Advent theme the key point of a story that doesn’t even mention God and certainly has nothing to do with Jesus.
I understand that. And I would suggest that in this low-expectations, high-stakes year, when so much is different from and other than our chosen ways, going beyond the standard canon of Advent readings and frames is entirely appropriate. That this year, perhaps more than ever, we need to pull out all the stops to open ourselves to Christ’s coming to us and the world in new and different ways:
Not only as a vulnerable baby born to peasant parents on occupied Palestine, but also as frontline workers risking their lives to serve ours, as human adaptability rising to the challenge of separation and disruption. Not only as the Light that breaks into the darkness, but also as a coronavirus vaccine breaking into a pandemic. Not only as the turning upside-down of the world so that the last shall be first and the hungry be filled with good things, but also as a new administration working to restore civility and respect to our divided nation. Not only as the dramatic in-breaking of the divine into the human, but also as the routine glory of a truly wonderful world as seen in myriad ways, including an almost-full moon rising in a clear sky at 4:25 on a late November afternoon. Not only as a seasonal respite from normal life, but also as an ever-available reminder of hope everlasting and the Love that will not let us go.
“About the day or the hour no one knows,” Jesus says. “Therefore, keep awake.”
Therefore, watch for any sign of God’s love. Therefore, be on the lookout for every reason to hope. Therefore, be alert to the wonder of the everyday and the holiness of the mundane. Therefore, be intentional about practices that will open your weary and fearful heart. Therefore, sing out from wherever you are. Therefore, gather however you can, knowing that God’s Spirit is in your midst. Therefore, light candles and make room for the unexpected. Therefore, pay attention. Therefore, be still. Wait, watch, behold. Therefore, prepare the way of Love.
Of course, Jesus will come this year. Christ comes to us—again—so that all would have hope. Christ comes so that our greatest hopes might be fulfilled.
Even now. Especially now. For just such a time as this.