I’m not someone who has really engaged much with Advent before. The candles and the countdown calendars were nice when I was a kid, but to be completely honest, these days there is just way too much on in the lead up to Christmas to pause and reflect. However, this year I’ve decided to take a different approach, and so far this is what I’ve concluded: Advent is not a naïve hope, or the relic of a dying tradition. Advent is an act of resistance in a time of hurry, stress, waste and fear. Advent is about creating space and cultivating hope in a world that would tell me to do otherwise.
Much has been written about the apocalyptic nature of the pandemic. Contrary to pop-culture usage, the Greek word apokálypsis does not mean the ‘end of the world’, it actually means a ‘revealing’ or an ‘unveiling’. An apocalypse is peeling back the layers of reality to see what is really going under the hood. It’s like finding that mystery tin can in your pantry that’s been sitting there without a label for years. The only way you’re going to know what’s inside is to peel back the lid and have a look. That moment when you stare into the tin is an apocalypse. It’s a revelation. ‘Oh right, so that’s what was in here!’
For many of us, an apocalypse is exactly what the last two years have been. What seemed sure, absolute and unchanging about our world has been turned upside down. Borders we took for granted have been closed, jobs we took for granted have been interrupted, health we took for granted has been threatened, relationships we took for granted have been separated. The certainties and guarantees we thought we had in life now have rather large question marks hovering over them. Everything seems a little more tenuous; a little more fragile.
As we’ve stared into the depths of the tin can, we’ve also seen parts of ourselves and our society that we may wish had stayed hidden. Sometimes cans are unmarked because we don’t want to continually be reminded of their contents. It’s more comfortable to tear off the label of the pickled artichoke hearts or the fermented herrings and stash them at the back of the pantry, than be continually faced with their unpleasant contents every time you go in for a sneaky square of Lindt chocolate. But apocalypses rarely come at the time of our choosing, or reveal aspects of reality we’ve longed to see.
Undoubtedly, for many this season has been marked by pain and great loss. But perhaps some of that loss can be redeemed. Perhaps we can find a different perspective from which to view our pain. Sometimes the disruption, discomfort, and aching of life is not just meaningless suffering, but the rumblings of labour. Sometimes pain is the precursor to new life.
This month the church celebrates the season of Advent. Advent means ‘the coming’. It’s a time to wait expectantly. Like Mary, we celebrate the coming of Christ. This is the miracle that God did not distance himself from us, but instead stooped so low as to be born as a helpless infant, completely dependent on a teenage mother for survival. This child would grow up under the shadow of a violent and oppressive empire and experience tremendous suffering. God had become like us – he had inhabited our pain and our struggle – in order to liberate us. So during Advent we consider all that Jesus accomplished, and we wait in eager expectation for the full consummation of peace on earth and that is yet to come.
According to the Apostle Paul, the tell-tale sign that this redemptive process is in action is, surprisingly, not an upturn in market sales or an increase in consumer satisfaction, or even the beginning of the party season. It’s actually ‘groaning’. In Romans 8 Paul explains that the whole of creation has been groaning as in the ‘pains of childbirth’ waiting for its redemption. We too, explains Paul, have been groaning. We groan in anticipation as we endure adversity and suffering with perseverance. We also groan when we look around and see that the world is not as it should be. We groan against injustice, we groan against oppression, we groan against violence, poverty and suffering.
In this present moment, we may ask while all this is happening, what is God doing? Why does he seem distant? Why is he silent? Has he forgotten us? To this Paul offers another apocalypse. While all of creation has been groaning, the Spirit of God has also been groaning! God identifies with us in such solidarity that the Spirit groans and intercedes for us, through us, and in us. God grieves for her children and her creation. And it is exactly in our lowest moments of despair that the Spirit is closest. In every bitter disappointment, every anguished tear, every misspoken regret, every stillborn dream, every fractured relationship – the Spirit of God is present and interceding on our behalf, always ready to begin the process of redemption when it is surrendered.
Advent is the persistent hope
in spite of present sufferings,
that all that has been lost will one day be restored,
that every tear-soaked moment is truly sacred,
and that even our darkest experiences can be redeemed.
Advent is the whisper in the wind that says,
“Behold, I am making all things new!”
Therefore we wait by the empty manger
in eager expectation
knowing that God is birthing a whole new world
out of the broken womb
of the unfulfilled present.