Advent is the season of preparing the way, of waiting and watching for God’s wondrous love to break into our lives and our world and our ways of seeing and being. Again. In ways new and different and perhaps even beyond our imagination.
And Christmas is the season of celebrating that love: how the magnificent mystery and extravagant love that is God chose to be with us as one of us, how God still lives among us and within us—in human flesh!—and how God comes to us in all manner of unlikely guises and unexpected characters, in everything and everyone from a sudden snowfall to a homeless person who smells to a sunbeam breaking through the clouds to a child almost bursting with joy to a loving and lovable pet to a difficult family member to a sublime piece of music to a transgender person radiant with the knowledge of who they are to a vulnerable and needy baby.
Surely, there are even more manifestations of God’s love than there are metaphors and names for God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Advocate, Counselor, Rock, Shield, Good Shepherd, Father-Mother, Deliverer, I Am, Comforter.
And yet there is something about a baby—something about God coming to us as a baby—that reveals the God in us, that brings out in us more love than we ever knew we could feel. We want to give our babies everything we have. We want to take care of our children and protect them, to nurture them and help them grow. We want to make them happy, and when they’re hurting, we want to comfort them.
Our God is a comforter who longs to soothe her crying baby, feed her growing flock, lift up the downtrodden, heal the sick, cradle the lost sheep in her arms, and comfort her people.
But some babies will not be soothed; some children cannot be comforted. For all the sophisticated technology and life-saving science we have, modern medicine still has not determined the cause of colic in babies and cannot pinpoint any risk factors for this common condition. Still, a colicky baby can all but break a parent—because no matter what they do, the baby just keeps crying; no matter how hard they try, nothing seems to work. All their efforts to console their child fail and, to make matters worse, sometimes the baby seems not only distressed but also enraged.
As we begin the second week of Advent and what is likely to be the worst month yet of a devastating pandemic, I can’t help but wonder if we have not become a nation of colicky, fussy, inconsolable babies. I wonder whether our hurt has grown so deep that we can no longer be comforted, whether our pain is so constant that we’re no longer even aware of it.
Think about it:
How powerless must someone feel to interpret as a major assault on their personal liberty a requirement to wear a mask to protect others from a deadly virus?
How scared must someone feel to insist on the segregation and persecution of people who are different from them?
How wounded and angry and power-hungry must someone feel to press his knee into another human’s neck for nine minutes?
How oppressed and unseen and hopeless must someone feel to think that violence is the only way to make their voice heard?
How disappointed and hurt must someone be to respond to every new idea or hopeful possibility with disdainful cynicism?
How lost must someone feel to latch on to every passing conspiracy theory to explain what is happening in the world?
How deathly afraid of failure must someone be to continue to contest the outcome of an election that was decided weeks ago?
Apparently, the distress is deep enough and the desire to hold onto power strong enough that many people would rather keep screaming than deal with reality. Apparently, the unacknowledged fear is so real that some people simply cannot, or will not, be comforted. Apparently, our stress levels are so high and the world such a mess that comfort and healing, safety and peace no longer seem attainable, and many of us settle for survival and getting by.
Because I wonder about this, last week I posed a question on Facebook: What, if anything, has comforted you in Pandemic Times?
Now, I won’t pretend that the responses I received represent anything close to a scientific sampling. But I did hear from more than 50 individuals—many of them middle-aged or older, most of them doing quite well, and quite a few of them clergy—and I’ll be honest with you: the content of the responses left me a little concerned. So much so that, in an attempt to be clearer, I rephrased the question. This is all great, I said, but I’m not asking what is helping you get through this scary and stressful time—as important and huge as that is—but what, if anything, is comforting you.
To their credit, a few people did provide very thoughtful and personal explanations of why time spent outdoors or swimming or with their partner or family, the work of reaching out to and helping others, or the refuge of their warm and soft bed brings them comfort. But the most common responses had to do with things like walking and bread-baking, dogs, making art, drinking vodka, or eating nachos.
To be clear: All of that is good and important. As the journalist Connie Schultz said the other day, “anything that reacquaints you with your previous [that is, pre-pandemic] self deserves to be thanked by name.”
The voice of the prophet cries, the tenor in Handel’s Messiah sings: Comfort ye! Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
But like a colicky baby, we would not be comforted. Like a headstrong toddler, we wanted to do it all ourselves. Like a rebellious teenager, we would not listen. Like adults who are supposed to have it all together, we could not show our weakness. Like people with responsibilities and things that had to get done, we carried on. Like mourners afraid of drowning in grief, we denied our pain and thus prevented ourselves from receiving comfort.
And so God became that colicky baby—and the headstrong toddler and the rebellious teenager and the scared Gen-Xer and the stressed-out parent and the numb Baby Boomer.
God’s love came down to be with us—not so that we would survive or just get by. God comes to us as one of us so that we might know healing and wholeness, life abundant, and deep joy, so that there might be justice and equality for all, so that steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, and justice and peace will kiss each other.
This, beloveds, is the good news of Jesus Christ. And this is the good news of Advent: that God comes to us again and again and again—with tenderness and comfort, love and hope, community and solidarity, grace and mercy, power and possibility.
And all we need to do is prepare the way—by opening our hearts; by grieving our losses, naming our fears, and letting ourselves be comforted; by trusting that God’s word is true; by letting God be God. All we have to do is be still, curl up in the divine lap, and let ourselves be held and blessed and loved.
And when we do,
Maybe this Christmas, as the song goes, will mean something more.
Maybe this year
Love will appear
Deeper than ever before
And maybe forgiveness will ask us to call
Someone we love
Someone we’ve lost
For reasons we can’t quite recall,
Maybe this Christmas
Maybe they’ll be an open door
Maybe the star that shone before
Will shine once more.
May it be so. And may we all be comforted.