Why I Love Advent More than Christmas

In our capitalistic American culture, Advent is a season where Christmas songs (which have been playing in stores since Halloween) are finally acceptible to the scrooges among us, and children eat daily chocolate candies to count the days from December 1 until Christmas. Let me clarify: this is not the Advent season that I love.

In traditional liturgical Christianity, Advent is a time of prayer and reflection designed to prepare our hearts to celebrate the Incarnation and birth of Jesus. Unlike our commercialized culture that tries to shoehorn everything Christmas into the category of “merry and bright,” Advent is actually a darker, more solemn season. It is a time of recognizing our deep need for the presence of God and longing for the coming of Christ. In Advent, we yearn not only for our annual celebration of God putting on flesh, but also for another coming of Christ, when our sorrows will be no more.

The first time I really connected with the message of Advent, I was driving “home” from college for Christmas break, but the home where I’d grown up had been destroyed in a fire just a month before. What was once my home now looked like a haunted house: the whole place was blackened, there was a cold white sky where the ceiling should have been, and everything that the fire didn’t take was destroyed by smoke, water, and firefighters.

Losing a home in such a sudden, traumatic way can make it difficult to be at home anywhere, even in your own heart. And that day, I was leaving everything I still owned in a 10×10 dorm room to go spend Christmas––which for me had always been a holiday about home––in a sterile white hotel room.

It started out as expected, “Do you see what I see?/Do you hear what I hear?” But the words of the old hymn changed:

“It’s a song, a song breaking through your night,
It’s a song, a song breaking through this fight”

The words broke through all the false cheer I was trying to manufacture, and all of a sudden, I was crying while zooming through the mountains of West Virginia at 70 miles per hour.

I had tried so hard to be joyful. But I left each attempt more empty-handed and hopeless than before. I felt like I was supposed to move on, to get over it, to be okay. That’s what God wanted, right? For me to “keep my eyes on him” when my world was crashing down around me? And wasn’t that supposed to mean that I shouldn’t feel any pain?

“It’s a song, a song breaking through your night,
It’s a song, a song breaking through this fight”

The song brought me back to the dark night that I was experiencing. It broke through the numbness and all the “I should”s that that were holding me in saccharine falsehoods. For the first time, it felt like God was looking at my sadness with compassion in his eyes. It felt like my pain mattered to him.

As soon as I stepped into my reality, God was there, as if he’d been in the middle of my pain all along, waiting for me to show up and find him. So I stepped into grief and loss and sadness, and in doing so, I stepped into hope.

One of my favorite liturgies to pray during the Advent season is listed in my Book of Common Prayer as “An Order of Worship for the Evening.” The church begins in darkness, and the leader blesses the people gathered, “Light and peace, in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Scripture is read, prayers are said, and then someone lights the candles on the altar. The service continues into Evening Prayer. We face the darkness as we move into light.

This is why I love Advent. It’s a whisper in the dark, “hope is coming.” Advent invites us to face the darkness inside us and around us as part of the process of moving into the light. It holds space for us to feel sad, confused, and disappointed; not in spite of the coming light, but because of it.

This post was originally published on November 29, 2018.