This post is by Cheryl Gilbert.
"The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come." ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As usual, I am later in ordering my family’s Christmas cards than I intended. Some day I am determined to order them the first week of November; alas, this is not the year. As I scrolled through hundreds of options on a photo card website last week I hesitated to select my favorite, one emblazoned with the word JOY, for fear of seeming insensitive to people or tone-deaf to issues. I think about my friend who is battling cancer for the second time, and my friend who is bearing a painful divorce after over 30 years of marriage, and my friend whose teen is rejecting God. While I attempt to help my friends navigate these personal battles, my heart also aches over racial injustice and homelessness and addiction and mental health and a culture that insists truth is subjective. There is so much darkness and brokenness, and I don’t want to give the impression that I am turning a blind eye so that I can watch cheesy Hallmark movies in ignorant bliss while my children snag chocolates from behind tiny cardboard doors.
It is precisely the darkness, the brokenness, the fear, the lies, and the suffering that give Advent meaning. To celebrate Advent isn’t to ignore the darkness of the world. On the contrary, Advent finds us yearning in much the same way that the Jews did before Jesus’ birth. We long for healing, we lament over injustice, we thirst for freedom, we grieve our suffering, and this brokenness is exactly what makes Advent a season of hope. When Isaiah prophesied the coming Savior he said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone...For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:2, 6 ESV). God sees the darkness, the brokenness, the need, the injustice, and He has provided the remedy.
The literal translation of the word advent is “to come” (from the Latin adventus). The Oxford English dictionary defines it as “the arrival of a notable person or thing.” For Christians, the arrival we celebrate is two-fold; the season of advent both recalls Jesus’ birth, God with us in human form, and looks forward to his future return as our victorious and conquering king. Paul wrote in his letter to the Hebrews that “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 ESV). So in celebrating Advent we reflect on Jesus’ first arrival to save us from our sins and we anticipate his second arrival to save us from the anguish, worry, heartache, and strife of this world. The season of Advent recognizes all that is broken, and as we light the candles we do so from a place of longing for the joy that is to come.
The crux of Advent is the thrill of hope that can cause our weary world to rejoice. We light candles symbolizing hope, faith, joy, and peace not to ignore despair, fear, sorrow, and conflict, but to respond to them. God knows our pain and has provided the solution; “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:15 ESV). Isn’t that just what we need right now? Grace. Truth. Jesus.
If this Advent season is one of lament for you - that’s okay. God doesn’t ask you to gloss over your wounds. Instead, He meets you there in the longing and tenderly promises wholeness and healing. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18 ESV).
I selected the card with the big, bold declaration of JOY. I hope that all who receive it recognize it as a promise. Proclaiming joy this season isn’t uncaring or naive; it is a discipline of experiencing longing and responding to it with hope. As Paul wrote to the Romans, the suffering of this world can’t even compare to the glory that’s coming (8:18). Advent, by its very definition, is the season of looking forward to what is yet to come.
Cheryl Gilbert loves all things holiday and tradition, from the liturgical beauty of Advent to the formulaic frivolity of Hallmark movies. She is a loving wife, proud mom, cancer survivor, really loud laugher, sun-seeker, and - most important - Jesus follower, living in the Pacific Northwest.
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