At the dawn of every new December, my children open sleepy eyes and go searching for our Advent agenda. Yes, agenda. Every year, I create an elaborate Advent plan for my family. My children have come to anticipate the weeks before Christmas as a time of treats, little gifts, family readings and activities, as well as service to others. Yes, Advent has become a whole thing in this household. And, as per usual, I did it to myself. I’m the one who looked waaaaay up high and said, “THAT is where this bar shall go.” And while the planning has now become a significant task at the end of November, I enjoy the preparation (or it would have been subtly phased out by now).
To accompany a count-down calendar of sorts, there is usually a basket or display of wrapped gifts to be opened on specified dates. Visual cues for family activities are wrapped up, such as a mini-Christmas tree to indicate we’ll be fetching our tree today or a gingerbread house kit to be assembled and decorated together (kudos to all of you who make yours from scratch. Did it once. Never again). Sometimes there are supplies to make Christmas ornaments that we share with others or gifts to be wrapped and delivered to neighbours and local soup kitchens. Of course I include little treats like gingerbread person cookies for lunch boxes and tacky Christmas socks to be opened and worn to school, but gifts aren’t really the point.
Over the years, we have sampled several Advent programs. When our kids were young, there were “Little People” figurines to be discussed and placed in the plastic nativity, there were ornaments to be hung on our “Jesse Tree,” there were paper characters from the Christmas story to be Scotch-taped onto a background scene (also taped, and re-taped and eventually duct-taped) onto our wall.
As conveyed above, I occasionally make my own life harder than it needs to be with high bars, preconceived notions and expectations. Though I’m on to this tendency in myself and am learning to aim for “good enough,” I can still entertain ideal visions in my mind about how something will unfold—and then, when it doesn’t line up, feel frustrated and disappointed. This was clearly evident when I decided our Advent events calendar would involve daily readings from Ann Voskamp’s beautiful book “Unwrapping the Greatest Gift.” I could envision us sitting by the tree, sipping hot chocolate, deeply touched by God’s love for us. Umm, no. The readings were clearly waaaay too long for my kids to endure (and also my husband). There was a lot of sighing and it usually ended with me getting mad because they were RUINING Christmas!! This year, the book is displayed amongst our Advent things, but friends, I cannot fight that fight. If a spontaneous reading occurs, amazing. If it doesn’t, good enough.
Some years, I insert my own treats into the pockets of our fabric Advent wall-hanging, but this year we’re using the paper, chocolate-filled versions. Each day, my kids locate the printed date, peel back the little paper door and consume one sub-par chocolate (unless you’re my son, in which case, you are currently under heavy supervision to ensure you adhere to the one-a-day rule). They’ll do this every day until suddenly, the chocolates are gone and the season of waiting is over. Christmas has come.
Christmastime ranks highest on my favourite-time-of-the-year scale. Warm fuzzy feelings and excitement abound. It’s a sensory feast of sights, smells, tastes, sounds. But there is an underbelly to this most wonderful time of year. Our expectation that we should feel overwhelming joy and peace can set us up for disappointment. This season of joy can feel heart-wrenching. This season of peace is often the least peaceful. The tension stretching between our actual experience and the idealized Christmas experience can be uncomfortable.
Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year, can be the most difficult time of the year for many people. It’s as though disappointment, loss and longing move to the forefront of our emotional stage. Former or current grief increases ten-fold at Christmastime. But it’s not only loss that throws shadows at this time of year, it’s also too much goodness in the form of holiday parties, gift-giving, food preparation, zero time at home and “to do” lists three pages long!
Wait a minute—what happened to the care-free, “sure thing” of childhood…a chocolate waiting behind every door?
Maybe what we need is an “Advent Reality Calendar!” We could prepare children for real life by making sure there are some unexpected prizes hidden behind the colourful paper doors. Just when you think you’re about to get chocolate, NOPE. Something scary. Just when you expect a sweet treat, NOPE. Bitter gall. Just when you expect something great on the other side of the door, NOPE. Nothing but an empty space. Clearly, I’m kidding. Mostly. But this twisted rendition would be far more effective in preparing us for life, because like Forrest said, life really is a box of chocolates. No one knows what they’ll get. Just as you prepare to sink your teeth into soft caramel, mint julep.
Leaving childhood behind, we understand that Advent is not a count-down to Santa Claus. It doesn’t take decades of living before we feel the disparity between our experience and the life we’d hoped for. If we allow it, Advent can be a season where we become acutely aware of our longing. Where we ache for the redemption and restoration of all things. Where we acknowledge the space between what is and what could be—what will be. Where we wait alongside the shepherds and kings of old for the birth of the saviour of the world. Where, now, we wait alongside a weary world for the King’s return; for the one who will set all things right.
In maturity, we also realize that gifts don’t necessarily present as new Christmas socks or a bit of chocolate. Adversity can be a gift. Many of those calendar doors that we opened to find nothing or something distressing or something we didn’t want—they were actually gifts, too. At the time, it wasn’t what we expected, but who knew that opening the door on disappointment could actually grow contentment in us? Who knew that opening the door to expose our worst fear could actually begin to deliver us from fear? Who knew that acknowledging our longing could actually invite us toward the greatest fulfillment? Who knew that responding to the knock and opening the door could actually introduce us to true hope and peace. Jesus.
Jesus has many names, but my favourite is Emmanuel. It literally translates to “God with us.” Oh, thank God! We are not alone in the mess. He is with us!
And herein lies the whole point of the Advent season. This beautiful world God created had become corrupt and broken. But instead of being repulsed by human brokenness. Instead of burning it all down. Instead of pressing the “smite” button. Instead of walking away. Instead of turning his back and starting over. Instead of replacing it with something shiny and new, Jesus came into the world. He entered the mess.
Alix Riley of Fuller University says “During Advent, we need a reminder that messiness is actually the point. Messiness made the incarnation necessary. Only Jesus could restore us to our rightful image—the image of God, which we twisted and disfigured through our persistent refusal to love God and to love others as we should. And so, amid the messiness, the Word became flesh and, as Eugene Peterson puts it, moved into the neighbourhood. Fully human and fully God, Jesus walked among us, revealing God’s unfailing love through a life of healing the sick, caring for the poor, and welcoming the sinner. Through his miraculous birth, unjust death and triumphant resurrection, he has begun to clean up the mess that we cannot make tidy on our own.”
If you’re in the mess and feeling the disparity—that aching thing in your chest that wants more; that longing for true peace—you are not alone. The whole world aches and groans for his return when he will make it shiny and new. But in the meanwhile, in the now, we can know hope and joy because he doesn’t leave us alone in it. He doesn’t abandon us to the chaos. He comes into it. He sits with us. He gives wise counsel. He leads us. He guides us. He comforts us. He is God with us. Emmanuel.
…the weary world rejoices.