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Why we need Advent now more than ever

5598559126_90f2e2024c_bAdvent—beginning with the first of four Sundays before Christmas—is usually my favorite time of year. I start anticipating it around June 21, when the days start getting shorter. I love the lights and colors, the smells of Christmas trees and warm fresh-baked cookies, the sounds of bells and carols, and the sight of Rudolph and Charlie Brown running across my television screen. But there’s a deeper reason for my love of Christmas.

For years, I have wrestled with my broken life, and Advent is a season to remember how God stepped into humanity’s story—my story—and lived among us for the sole purpose of saving us. Have you ever suddenly realized that you find more excitement in the days leading up to Christmas than the actual day itself? That is Advent. The “secular” Christmas season of anticipating Santa Claus is merely a shadow-like reflection of what Advent is. Advent is waiting, knowing Jesus will come. So for me, Advent is a reflection and celebration of the magnitude of Jesus’s birth, and what it means in the mess that is my life.

Yet this year, despite my love of Advent, the temptation has been strong to just sit in the darkness and be sad over a world gone mad.

I tried to start this blog on the first Sunday of Advent, because I wanted to give a warm, meaningful introduction to this season of hope.

Yet no words came.

I was in a sour, bleak mood. This year has felt like an episode of the Twilight Zone – or, more accurately, like the overall plot  of “The Walking Dead”: There is no way this story can end well.

Like many people, I have been reeling from a painfully long and ugly presidential election which divided families, friends, and even the body of Christ. I celebrated the day after, not because of the outcome but because it was finally, mercifully over. Then came weeks of riots and accusations, and as if those weren’t enough, the election that will not go away is about to be stretched out at least another few weeks because an official recount was requested in three states. The uncertainty continues.

As I continued trying to blog, a Somali refugee plowed his car into a crowd of students at Ohio State University, then jumped out of his car and began stabbing everyone he could before he was shot dead by law enforcement.

Yet another tragedy. Yet another reason why I could find no heartening words to say.

1280px-night_sky_stars_trees_02The hope of Advent seems pushed out by a dark, broken world, extinguished by the pain of daily life.

Perhaps it’s just the cumulative weight of 2016 in my psyche. Granted, there have been many things to be thankful for in this year; I can’t pretend there were no blessings. But it has been a year unlike any other in my lifetime. Globally we are overwhelmed by issues and evils, knowing that no one – not even the talking heads on TV or the self-proclaimed experts on social media – can solve them. Nationally we are shattered by politics, nursing suspicions and firing accusations against our closest friends and family members because of who we did or didn’t vote for. And personally I celebrated my 50th birthday this year, which reanimated deep questions about life’s meaning and God’s plan.

I have felt so many raw emotions and scary uncertainties this year that I just want to tap out for a while.

So instead of anticipating Advent with joy, I did so with numbness and dread—as if it were just another task to get through.

As I watched the horrible events at Ohio State scroll across my television screen, I got into a pretty frosty (bad seasonal pun intended) debate with myself over whether it was worth it even to get a tree. But I knew that if I didn’t, I’d keep debating the question and be unable to move on to other things – like finishing this blog.

So despite my Grinch-like heart, I ventured out.

Barely thinking or caring about anything, I drove to a nondescript tree lot, grabbed the first decent tree I saw, secured it atop my car, and headed home. Within an hour I had fixed it in a stand, strung it with lights, and thrown some decorations on it.

And although my initial intent was simply to get that chore out of the way, the result changed me.

In the daytime, my tree was just an odd, temporary living room decoration, giving off barely visible light. But as darkness fell, it became truly beautiful.

I sat in the warm glow of my new Christmas tree, a glow which brought remarkable contrast to my darkened living room. And I began to feel the hope that Advent brings.

That morning I had been reading Ann Voskamp’s new book, and now one sentence she wrote explained my experience: “The way you always find the light in the dark is to make your hand reach out.”[1] My sparkling-new Christmas tree was suddenly the symbol of Advent for me. It was light invading the darkness. But I needed to reach for it, and invite the hope of Advent into my own heavy world.

I am grateful I chose to go buy a tree despite my sour disposition. God used that tree to show me that we remember Advent not despite the world’s darkness, but because of it. The anticipation of Advent shines brightest in a dark world; it is when the world is darkest that the anticipation is most needed.

In 2017, there is no guarantee of a better year. We will still be living in a dark, fallen world. And that is exactly why Advent is more important than ever. The world’s darkness is exactly why we must remember Advent—which holds within it the anticipation of Jesus’s birth, the power of his sacrifice, and the hope of knowing that one day he will come again.Photo by Daniel Hochhalter

[1] Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way, p. 57.

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