Advent is an ancient tradition, a major season in the Christian church, but I didn’t even know about Advent until a few years ago. Growing up, the Christmas season was one of joy and anticipation, gifts and songs. It was baby Jesus and reverent animals and shining stars. And of course, it is still—in a way. But I’m glad I was introduced to Advent not as a child but as an adult, once I was familiar with the pain and complexity and gray areas of the world, once I had the kinds of questions Advent addresses.
This year, I’m so relieved that it’s Advent. It seems this is the season when it’s okay to be messy. When it’s okay to look around and, instead of smiling with a can-do, cheer up attitude, one can say, “This world is dark.” It seems most of the past few months I’ve been noticing so much messiness, so much darkness. Starting a new job as a high school teacher plunged me back into the angst and confusion and drama of my teen years, as I watch my students take their generation’s turn to play the role of American teenagers. We adults like to swap stories about high school, laughing at ourselves, grimacing over awkward moments (or, let’s face it, years). Together we shake our heads and agree, “Thank God we don’t ever have to be teenagers again.”
But my job does not allow me the luxury of remaining at a comfortable distance from their dramatic inner turmoil over unrequited crushes and perceived injustices at the hands of parents and teachers. I’m in the thick of it, listening to their woes, responding to their complaints, biting my tongue every time I want to say, “Welcome to life, kid.” I find myself wanting that distance again, wanting teenagers and their messy, awkward, growing-every-moment existence to be but a fuzzy peripheral idea, not an in your face reality.
But at Advent, I remember: we as a human race—not just teenagers—are awkward, messy, petty, dramatic, and growing every moment. And Advent says the God who created us decided not to stay at a distance, but to become one of us, to get in the mess and the discomfort and the angst, and be with us. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” possibly the oldest Christmas carol in existence, calls on “God-with-us” and beseeches him to come. To come to this earth that he did once visit, to come again and be with us in our darkness, our brokenness, our confusion and hurt.
Advent is a season of light. Each Sunday, we light another candle. The year I spent in Norway, I noticed every postcard perfect cottage nestled in the snow displayed in every window a set of electric advent candles, piercing the long Scandinavian nights with warmth and light. Christmas remembers that God came, but Advent reminds us that God will come again, once more piercing the darkness of our humanity and bringing us, once and for all, out into the light-filled existence for which we were made.
I must remember that this Advent, as I watch my students struggle not only in the usual teenage angst, but also in their generation’s unique trials: their disconnectedness from their own lives thanks to the Digital Age, their living in a culture of fear and terror, where September 11 happened before they hit kindergarten, and they never knew a time before school shootings and taking off your shoes at the airport.
This Advent, when I volunteer at the local humane society, playing with dogs who were abused or abandoned or just thrown away when their existence was no longer convenient for their owners, I must remember that the Light will one day dawn for good, and the poor and helpless and voiceless will be finally safe. This Advent, when I force myself to visit my father in his nursing home and feel so conflicted as I survey his pitiful, lonely existence, resulting from decades of self-neglect and selfishness, I must remember that one day brokenness will finally give way to wholeness.
Another Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” remarks that the “hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” What about the hopes and fears of all the years since that night? What do we do with those, when we feel so heavy with them we cannot go on? Advent is the season when we let them sit, heavy on our souls, knowing that the burden will one day be lifted by One stronger than us. We light a candle and hold it against the darkness, knowing that one day it will be overcome but the candle will never go out.