I used to think of advent as the count-down until time for present buying had evaporated. I used to feel super smug if I had got them all bought by the time the first seven windows were open, and feel even more so as my mum or sisters worried “gosh, is it that close to Christmas, already?”. At best, it was about getting into the Christmassy spirit.
But Advent isn’t Christmas.
Advent is long and dark and cold. Pretend the Christmas music wasn’t filling every shop; pretend there weren’t lights to make the December nights look warm and cosy; pretend there weren’t ice rinks, or tinselled trees, or gingerbread lattes. Pretend it was just frosty, bleak day after day. Could then you believe that those skeleton trees would bud life again, and that you’d be able to leave the house without multiple pairs of socks? Maybe you don’t have to pretend: maybe, that’s how your head feels right now. Maybe with every artificial tree and every equally contrived ‘happy family’ scene on the tellybox, you feel increasingly alienated.
Well, I think that is what Advent is actually for. I think it is when we are realistic with ourselves and with God about how much the gulf between God’s original design and our experience hurts. Advent is about the tension between the now and the not-yet, the ‘it is finished’ and our continuing to work out our salvation, Jesus’ promise to return quickly and our impatience. For some, that tension might be a romantic balancing act. For me at least, it is laced with raised voices, questions, and aching. When we peel back pictures of reindeer and snowmen to reveal actually-not-that-tasty-chocolates-but-they’re-in-a-cute-shape-so-who-cares, we can get the impression that Advent is about bite-sized joys before the full monty. But I think this month, the Church should be loud in its lamentation, open in its yearning for the end of anguish. We are learning to long for the joy of Christ’s return. For how could we welcome Him back as Lord if we hadn’t missed Him desperately?
It is safe to pray these uncomfortable thoughts because the answer to our prayers is coming. That joy doesn’t mean the suffering now is not real; saying ‘it will be over, things will get better’ doesn’t mean that right now, it isn’t painful as heck. But the joy and the suffering will give meaning to each other, and it makes us adore Jesus for His power as well as His humility.
So we sing ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ not because we want Him to hurry up so we can open our presents. But we pray it. We plead it and we beg it with confidence.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.