O ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow…
The past few weeks have been marked by much suffering for those I love. The pain seems overwhelming: substance abuse in adult children, the possibility of a very scary diagnosis, a seemingly unfair and senseless job loss, a sibling carted off to jail in the middle of the night, an impending divorce and the unnerving future of being alone, a debilitating disease that prevents normal life-function, and mental illness that doctors are having trouble treating. You get it. You are hearing that kind of news as well. And like me, your thoughts might be shouting, “How long? How much? Why? Why right now?”
I love the holiday season. From November 1 to January 1, like many of yours, our house is filled with decorations, food (and way too much of it, as my waistline is currently showing), family, friends, celebration, and traditions. Along with these external manifestations of the season, there are also the underlying inner emotional expectations of gratitude, wonder, joy, peace, love, hope and generosity, to name just a few. A quick confession: I like this paragraph more than the first one. I want to live here. I want all good things, happy thoughts.
The period leading up to Christmas morning is commonly known as Advent. It’s Advent right now. Shauna Niequist reminds us that “advent is about waiting, anticipating, yearning. Advent is the question, the pleading and Christmas is the answer to that question, the response to the howl. There are moments in this season when I don’t feel a lot like Christmas, but I do feel a lot like Advent.”
For many weeks now, as you read above, I agree with Shauna. I feel a lot like Advent. Advent is NOT Christmas morning. Advent speaks about and grieves broken places that are yet to be healed, questions that have no answer today, and yearning that is unfulfilled. Advent gives a glimpse of hope at the end of a long season of waiting. Advent is “both and.” Advent says there is suffering and it is real, palpable. But advent also says there is hope, just as real and palpable. Advent says “don’t skip over the suffering. Don’t minimize the heartache. Sit in it, acknowledge it, and feel it.” This is not an easy place. And if the truth is told, I struggle with Advent. I do not sit with the grief, acknowledge and feel it. I skip right to Christmas morning, the happy place, where the answer is here and salvation has come.
I am slowly learning that skipping right to Christmas doesn’t work. It doesn’t take away the pain. It doesn’t make bad things not happen. It doesn’t bring true healing. Advent brings healing. It is the place of real truth that speaks both heartache and hope, both suffering and a savior.
Sometimes God does His best work during the seasons of advent in our lives, the waiting periods, the not-yet times. And that hard work usually takes the form of those who “sit with us in the dark,” when we can’t see the light, those who go to the not-so-pretty places with us and remind us of who God is and His undying love for us, for as long as it takes until we can see “Christmas” on the horizon.
There are more than two weeks until Christmas. Let’s not skip to that place. Let’s live in the not-yet, the place of anticipation. Let’s dive into the questions, the grief, the “howl,” the yearning of both ourselves and those we love. Let’s be okay in the waiting. Christmas will come soon enough. A baby will be here. A Savior will come. What is empty will be filled. Heartache will be healed. Yearning will be fulfilled. What is broken will be repaired. What we’ve lost will be found. But in the meantime, we will wait together, not forgetting the howl of our hearts.
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!
(It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Fourth Verse)