Every year I complain about the season’s rush toward Christmas with its apparently irresistible and irreversible consumerism. Every year I hold out hope that the true meaning of Advent might dominate the headlines and our calendars, or at least dominate my attention. And every year hectic preparation bullies aside the opportunity to appreciate “how silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given [as] God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.”
Advent is meant to be different. It’s meant to be a season of repentance and humility – a little Lent, some call it – when we prepare our hearts for some new birth of Christ. It’s meant as a time to do less, not more; to quiet our souls and schedules; to allow ourselves to decrease so Christ can increase (John 3:30). But any suggestion of that today seems to invite tolerant impatience at best, ridicule and scorn at worst, from even the most regular of church goers. We know better but can’t seem to help ourselves.
Maybe our dream of Christmas is too big. The trouble with big dreams is they can make present reality seem pretty disappointing. That’s especially true of eternal dreams, the kind humans have been dreaming for as long as we’ve been around, the kind depicted in our scriptures. Peace on earth, swords into plowshares, wolf and lamb living together, global power brokers submitting to the leadership of a little child – these things seem a long way from what’s been happening since election day, or what’s happening in Aleppo or Standing Rock.
For that matter they can seem a long way from what’s happening in the relatively puny personal challenges Sheryl and I face every day in our attempt to live a life of peace and wholeness: getting finances ready for retirement; dealing with plumbers who think it’s our job to serve them; trying to find a good physician with an office staff that’s minimally competent; dealing with bodies that slowly betray us.
These things don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the problems of people who have no job, much less a retirement plan, who have neither plumbing nor a house, and whose physician is whoever happens to be on call at the emergency room. And they certainly don’t carry much weight among the problems facing our nation and world. But all these things do sometimes make us wonder where God’s peaceable kingdom is hiding. Wouldn’t this be a good time for God to fulfill our Advent dreams?
What I’m learning is that before Advent is the bright and happy season driven by merchants of excess, it is a dark and hungry time of deep yearning. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said celebrating 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.” If that’s true – and Bonhoeffer was pretty astute about these things – there are a lot of folks for whom this is the right kind of Advent, the hungry and troubled kind, when something eternally bigger and better simply must be on the horizon.
But bigger and better can be deceptive. Big dreams hardly ever get delivered to your door on the UPS truck. Every big dream I’ve ever come close to laying my hands on first appeared as something so small and inconspicuous, I had to search the past to find where and how and when it began. Advent means there’s something on the horizon, even in this hungry, troubled time, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. And we’re likely not to see it now because it’s so small we tend to overlook it.
“Life is so generous a giver,” Fra Giovanni wrote to his friend in his famous Christmas Eve letter of 1513, “but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the Angel’s hand that brings it to you.”
A true Advent, I believe, is not about seeing the full realization today of tomorrow’s great dream. It’s about seeing, beneath today’s rough covering, the real promise of what will be, even though that promise is little more than a suggestion. To get the big dream of Advent, we’ve got to search the smallest, least likely, most counter-intuitive experiences, places where the cracks appear in our life, to see where the light of Advent’s promise may be breaking through., because where we become vulnerable we become available to the Christ who comes to live among us anew.
In the skinning of a knee on the playground, Christ may come.
In meeting a first love, Christ may come.
In learning your heart attack left no lasting damage, Christ may come.
In a young child completing a course of chemotherapy, Christ may come.
In hearing a grave diagnosis, Christ may come.
In discovering your spiritual gift, Christ may come.
In watching your marriage crumble, Christ may come.
In learning how to walk again, Christ may come.
In coming back home, Christ may come.
In grieving deeply, Christ may come.
In losing faith, Christ may come.
In regretting words you can’t take back, Christ may come.
In saying goodbye to a dream, Christ may come.
In finding your voice, Christ may come.
In learning you’re going to be parents, Christ may come.
In hanging by a thread, Christ may come.
In hitting rock bottom, Christ may come.
In dying surrounded by tearful loved ones or in dying alone, Christ may come.
In smiling at a stranger and making that stranger want to stay, Christ may come.
Seeing the dream of Advent becoming real isn’t about seeing farther into the future; it’s about seeing deeper into the present. The day Jesus spoke about is not drawing near in the future; it’s rising in this present moment, it’s breaking into our lives right now, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. “The moment to wake” is always now. The night is not around us but within us. Our eyes are full of sleep. God comes among us like a thief in the night but we don’t see it coming.
As Fra Giovanni wrote to his friend, “The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look.” Hope is rising among us.