Advent begins this Sunday.
For me—even in years when it’s not one of the lectionary readings—Advent is always about how Isaiah’s voice breaks the silence. I see him in his crumbled world, just looking into the heavens and crying out: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
Never has the longing of a human heart been so real to me. And Advent is all about the longing of our hearts.
Since the earliest days of the church, Advent has been a time for us to wait for the God of our salvation. In a very real way, Advent becomes a time when our longing merges with the longing of God. It’s a time of watching in anticipation for the coming of God’s promised reign. It’s a time of waiting for God to set things right.
When your world’s crumbling, when you have no where to turn, the only thing to do is to look to the heavens and beg God to come down and do something about it, and to join God’s work whenever you see it. Though the words have been different, though we may not always use the exalted language of Isaiah, we are well aware that we, like those before us, long for the promised day of the Lord, and we are casting visions of what that’s going to look like. We know what it’s like to be a people who look around and see profound hurt. Which is why we need the season of Advent—a time to give voice to the longing we feel deep in our bones.
I realize I may be in the minority, but the church’s season of Advent is my favorite. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas when we sing about the joy God has sent to the world in the birth of Jesus. And, it should go without saying that I love the season of Easter when the church bears witness to God’s power to conquer death with the news of resurrection and my new life. But if pressed, I would have to say that my favorite season is Advent, for, as I always remind my friend Chris, it’s the one time of year that I can wallow in pathos and not feel too guilty about it.
Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran pastor, describes why Advent is her favorite season of the year, and I understand. She writes:
“Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit, even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent, I am always in sync with the season. Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the word longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unbearable, unfulfilled desire and the cry of longing breaks forth: Come, Lord Jesus! O come, O come, Emmanuel!” (Heidi B. Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 211)
I think I understand what she means. And I know Isaiah would, because whenever we discover that the world isn’t what we or God imagined it would be, when we recognize the hurt, and lift our heart and soul and voice to God in hope—we do so in the promise that God will do something about it—and we are going to wait for God to act—even if it means we have to wait all day long.
And so, during these days of Advent, we will tell the truth. We will not be afraid to name our hurt, because we cannot affirm our hope without it. And this is our hope: that God—the One who tore open the heavens to come down in the flesh of Jesus Christ—is even now in the midst of our world—knee-deep in the pain and hurt—and God is working out a day when all hurt will be ended.
And that’s why we’ll light the candles in the Advent wreath each week. Not to remember the prophets, shepherds, angels, or wise men. It’s not even to proclaim hope, peace, joy, and love. Those are all good things, but they are late additions to the church’s use of the advent wreath during Advent—a practice which began in the first century. No, the wreath symbolizes one thing. Each week, as one more candle is lit than the week before, we give witness to the truth that the night is far gone and the day is near. More light. That no matter how dark the world may seem, the true light has entered the world that no darkness will ever overcome.
The following prayer, sung to the tune of Morning Has Broken, reflects my hopes for an honest Advent:
We sit in darkness, longing for daybreak.
When will you show up to end the night?
Fulfill your promise! Scatter all darkness!
Tear open heaven! Let there be light!
Should we grow weary while we are waiting,
tell us once more how you’ll set things right.
Renew your promise! Scatter all darkness!
Tear open heaven! Let there be light!