Advent is the season that gets lost in the Christmas excitement and hassles. People feel Advent is a jolly time because they listen only to jolly Christmas music. Yet, Advent sounds a somber note prior to the joy and celebration of Christmas. Believe it or not, this only dawned on me this late in my career as I began to consider the texts for Advent. Usually I emphasized waiting, patience, and repentance, along with metanoia (change of heart).
The more I thought about it and began to analyze the Advent narrative, I discovered that it is filled with dark tales. When we talk about the “light of Advent” or lighting the Advent wreath, we should not forget the darkness: (1) the passages from Isaiah; (2) the baptist in the wilderness announcing judgment; (3) the risky and dangerous journey to Bethlehem; (4) the fear in Mary’s heart as she learns she is pregnant; (5) the anguish in Joseph’s mind; (6) an unwelcome mother giving birth in a manger; (7) the rumors spread by visitors from the east that alarm Herod and ignite his rage, which will lead to the slaughter of the innocents – all young children; (8) this will lead to the babe of Bethlehem becoming a refugee as he and his parents flee to Egypt, footsteps ahead of the slaughter.
Basically, when we look at Advent, we can see a lot of darkness in the form of anxiety, fear, inhospitality, anger, rage, tears, and violence. Quite a drama, when you look at it with fresh eyes.
The more I thought about it, the more the story does not sell to the public who wants to hear Christmas tunes about reindeers and Santa Claus, filling stockings, going to parties, and looking at Christmas trees. Let’s face it, we like happy things and don’t want to be reminded of the bad things that take place in the world.
Tying into this idea is a story I read about David Letterman, who returned to his alma mater, Ball State University in Indiana. Here he hosted a discussion with film directors Spike Jonze and Bennett Miller. Both are creative film makers, who have fought to bring their works of art to the screen. What they noted was that studios don’t want movies that are too strange, sad, and dark. They don’t want to have any jagged edges. The more I thought about it, that probably characterizes most of us.
In a world of instant messages, instant oatmeal, short serial relationships, we don’t want to deal with jagged edges. However, life comes with jagged edges, and we all bump up against them, whether we like it or not. It seems that, as a pastor, I am experiencing this not only in my own life, but within our little church you can discover the darkness, the shadows that are part of all of our lives. There is disappointment with our job, sometimes troubles waters within our marriage, and worries about our children. There are the expectations that aren’t met, sadness over the loss of loved ones, and sickness that burdens us – not to mention the fatigue of balancing the check book, broken trust, and living with decisions based on the bottom line that can get in the way of living a full life. It’s all part of the message of Advent, that calls us to light a candle in the darkness as we wait for the birth of a child in a manger and in our heart.
So, as I see this Advent season and the stress that surrounds us at this time of the year, I feel that I can only stay focused when I stay close to the message that is proclaimed on Sunday, that comes through our hymns, our Advent passages, and the meditations that I must struggle to create. I cannot minimize the darkness any more than I can avoid proclaiming the gospel of hope and forgiveness and love that is embodied in a child in Bethlehem.
If Advent isn’t a struggle, you are not doing it right.