Some things you only discover over the long course of years. This frustrates an economy of optimization, hyper-fixated on immediate improvement and benefit. Wisdom can’t be reduced to “insights” gleaned by data, metrics, or analytics though, even if they’re useful from a strategic point of view. The season of Advent stubbornly persists in forcing the door open for the hard-to-quantify long-haul. It even escapes the individual desire to find in it a quick shot of spiritual inspiration, like a swallow of Gatorade to get us back in the game. Advent will quietly hold you in place, arresting your plans, anxieties, and even priorities. Wait, it whispers. Wait. Wait. Don’t pull out your phone, though, to dull the irritation at waiting. No, Advent asks us to sit through the discomfort of waiting until we find ourselves watching.
If you didn’t grow up in an especially liturgical tradition, it may have seemed odd to you as a child – the anticipation of Christmas, the frenzied build up all to one day – the odd, slow deflation afterward. The twelve days of Christmas bridging manger to Magi somehow makes more intuitive sense even to an informal child-calendar. It makes sense that this good news – Jesus born, Word Made Flesh! – is due more a little season of celebration than a single day.
Though I can’t speak to the value of liturgical rhythms in the same way that someone in their eighties or nineties could, I’m now at a point in life where I can meet Advent as a friend. It wasn’t always so, though I always enjoyed popping open the little paper doors of the Advent calendar. There were years I was impatient for Christmas itself – or impatient for the arrival of my own December child. There were other years I wanted to set a match to the whole thing and watch it burn into ash I could smear on my forehead; some years, by mid-December, I wanted only the lament of Lent and could barely stomach the thin, brittle glass of the ornaments on the tree, my soul in curving shards.
Over time, Advent has become an anchor. Whatever the state of the world, whatever the state of me, I run or crawl into the immovable wall of Revelation in the Flesh. It is the fact of it that breaks me. This tender joy tears the mighty from their seats of power. This blast of Light is inescapable and I must sit with it even if it infuriates me or illumines me. How dare this Beauty exist in the realness of time and space; it is unbearable. It’s not fair: not in a world of cancer wards and barefoot refugees and one person bashing the skull of another. Six pounds, nineteen inches of the Infinite. The Word Made Vulnerable – as vulnerable and defenseless as a newborn. “Into the violence,” whispers the Trinity, “defenseless Love will be born.” If God had asked my advice, I would have tried to find a polite way to suggest how irresponsible this move was. Thankfully, God did not.
Joy and grief are such fragile states; such vulnerable places to be. No one wants joyful times to end; and grief carves us hollow and brings us to the manger empty-handed, distracted, exhausted. In all seasons of human experience – whether December arrives to find you cheerfully lighthearted or hollow or more tired than you’ve ever been – in all seasons of experience, Advent will anchor you to God Who Gets Down on the Floor with Us and Learns to Roll Over, to Joseph and Mary’s cheers. It isn’t ever more sophisticated than this. It is always as safe as this. In joyful years and hard years, the belly-laugh or tightened throat, Advent gives your hand something to grip as you wait. And the path always ever only leads to a defenseless newborn. “Here,” Mary says; “would you like to hold Jesus for a moment? I need to get something to drink.” You hesitate and sit in the rocker and uncertainly accept his snug form into the crook of your elbow. “There,” God says; “I didn’t approach Elijah in the wind or fire or earthquake, but in the still small whisper; and I come to humankind now, small enough to wrap my hand around your pinkie finger.”
In the waiting, slowly, watching can begin. In the watching, you will find over the years that the Light shines in the darkness, and the grim boil of darkness cannot overcome a helpless, sleeping newborn, watched over by the animals he sang into existence. Come, all you who are tired and heavyhearted, and he will give you rest.
Featured image courtesy Evelyn Semenyuk via Unsplash.