Advent: Training for Hope
The Rev. Dr. Jon Parker is Assistant Professor of Religion at Berry College, where he teaches interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, and is an ordained priest in the ACNA and Anglican Diocese of the South.
“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. – Charlie Brown
The older I get the harder time I have with secular Christmas. It has less to do with the vacuous commercialism of the season, although that penchant for tapping our sincere loves for family and peace just to ply us to purchase more certainly doesn’t help. It has more to do with the accruing pain in life. Every year another loved one dies, another injustice resounds through our public discourse and is then repeatedly paraded with anger and calls for action, another disappointment with work, colleagues, or family member clouds my vision of happiness in life. My horizon of the future just looks a bit dimmer.
It’s really the intersection of these two that grates on me: The so-called “answers” of the market compared to the real pain in life. Clearly, the world, the economy, is not my savior. It really has nothing to say to my lived experience.
The other day, I drove passed a semi-homeless drunk I know by name. I watched him stumble across the street nearly being hit by a car in the process, and my heart wept for the world. Compassion swelled up against the boundaries of “practicality,” and it chafes. It hurts not to be able to do more. I have tried to help him several times and have hit head-on the complicated web of poverty and addiction that makes any real rescue from his condition feel impossible.
With bulging heart, tear-swelled eyes, and lump-filled throat, I have only two choices: despair or … hope.
Pain into Longing
Thankfully, I have Advent. It’s an ancient practice, an ancient training in hope. Anglican theologian of worship, Robert Webber, once articulated the “emphasis” of Advent as, “Readiness for the coming of Christ at the end of history and at Bethlehem.” And he described its “spiritual challenge” as “Repent and be ready for the second coming of Christ. Allow an eager longing for the coming of the Messiah to be birthed in your heart” (Ancient-Future Time, 16-17; for more, see James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King).
That’s the call of Advent to me: To take all the points of pain, the run-ins with disappointment (starting with myself and my own sin, actually), the stings of death and injustice, the cries of that’s-not-right-God-and-you-know-it, and the silent whispers of sometimes-I’m-scared-for-my-future, and then to ask God to turn them to longing. Longing not focused on me (for more self-control in myself or others), or focused on society (if we only had X in our city/country/world), but focused on Him, on Christ the Lord.
He is the one who is born of Mary to become like us so we could become like him and so (eventually) to bring healing to the sickness and ills we suffer. He is the one who gave himself as an invitation to the world to come to him and to us to lay down our combative ways and become servants and givers like him (Phil 2:1-11) so that our whole human society can know what it truly means to live and to love. He is the one who promises he will come (John 14:1-4) to set things right once and for all, in judgment and final reign (1 Cor 4:5). He alone can save us.
Longing into Hope
That’s why we pray the one-word prayer of the New Testament (1 Cor 6:22; cf. Rev 22:20) in Aramaic, one of the languages of Jesus:
This one-word prayer is sometimes all we can mutter on a cold December day wandering from task to task, from store to store, wondering what the point of it all is. But when we do utter that one-word prayer, Maranatha, it does exactly what Advent is meant to do: It turns our pain and longing into hope and reminds us what Christmas is all about.
It’s not actually about things being right now. Part of loving the world the way Christ loves it is in fact bearing with it in its pain (2 Cor 4:10; Phil 3:10), holding on to it in its very “almost-ness” of redemption. With Christ we can see the way things should be, but we ourselves cannot bring the end. Our job is to wait: To wait, and to pray, and to hope; to remember that (as Rich Mullins once pined) “love has come and He’s given me hope to carry on.”
So, maybe I won’t love secular “Christmas season” any more this year than any other year, but maybe this year, I can let it push me to live the love of Christ in my life just a little more, each day of the season, leaning into hope.
“Maranatha. Come, Lord.”
1 It’s possible that the phrase is not “marana tha” (“Come Lord!”) but “maran atha” (“Our Lord has come! [and will come again]).”