The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are magical and marvelous, busy and bustling. There are gifts to buy and wrap, stockings to hang, cookies to bake, and friends to see. There are Christmas classics to watch while we drink hot cocoa and admire our twinkling trees. Often Christmas Eve and Christmas mark an end to a season whose magic was in the anticipation—the beauty of waiting with great joy, because we know what’s coming, we know who is coming.
The word advent means “coming,” and the season of Advent marks four weeks of waiting for Christ to come. According to the United Methodist Church, Advent is “a season to prepare for the coming of Christ in various meanings: the promised coming of the Messiah to the Jews, the coming of Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the promised return of the risen Christ in final victory, and the continual coming of Christ into the lives and hearts of believers.” Once Christmas Eve arrives, the twelve days of Christmas begin. Christmas doesn’t end—the celebration is just getting started!
In light of this, it struck me as a bit odd that we do our celebrating before, in a space that is meant to be holy and slow, causing us to pause and hold our breath in anticipation. Am I trying to be a Grinch about holiday parties and all manner of festive activities? Nope! I love them, and I’ll keep attending and making merry. But deep in my soul I crave quiet, not Christmas music or cookies, in order to train my mind and my heart on the spirit of the season.
You see, at its core, Advent is a season of waiting, and so often we fill it to the brim with activities and good, fun things. Take the advent calendar, for example—we fill each day with an activity to get us into the Christmas spirit, but the true spirit of Christmas is one of waiting. On this side of history, we have the luxury of waiting with great hope, great joy, and great expectation: we know Jesus will be born, we know he will save us and redeem us, we know he will die and rise again, and we know he will set all things right one day.
But before Christ came, Advent was dark. It was lonely and unknown, as the Israelites waited in faith to hear from God, and all they heard was . . . nothing. Silence.
Isn’t this more characteristic of the waiting we usually do? The waiting seasons of our lives are less often marked by joy and hope and more often marked by pain and fear. They are not often cozy or comforting but difficult and dark and even laborious.
We wait as a pregnant mother waits for her child to be born—there’s a vision of the joy to come, to be sure, but in the throes of gut-wrenching labor pains, we think we might actually die before we see that joy fulfilled. We groan and writhe and wonder when the pain will end, just to be met with fresh wave after fresh wave, the pain intensifying at every turn, until we’re met with more mess and more rawness than we know what to do with. After a long season of pregnancy, when the fullness of time has arrived, the advent of labor ushers in the real period of waiting—and it is active and painful and raw.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this phrase, the fullness of time. We read it in Galatians 4:4-5:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
The fullness of time makes me think of that perfectly round, fit-to-burst pregnant belly. That mom is aching for sweet relief, for new life. How often I try to skip ahead in my own waiting—to end the wait at the halfness of time, or the three-quarterness of time—because that last bit of waiting . . . it is the most painful of all. We’ve been stretched all we can be stretched. We’ve been made to stand all we can stand. And then we’re called to wait some more.
Advent is that sacred space: the anticipation that comes in the space between pains, the catching our breath and readying our bodies and hearts and minds for what’s next. It is holy and hushed, sweetly relieving. It propels us forward in time toward the main event, to the wholeness and the healing, but in the fullness of time. Not by own our clocks or calendars but by the divine hand of the Lord.
So for this Advent, I find myself returning to some predictable habits to create in me those fresh waves of anticipation.
I’m setting my alarm a bit earlier, carving out sacred space in my favorite chair with my Bible and a journal.
I’m toning down the merry music and filling my ears with traditional hymns.
I’m closing my eyes and remembering the pain of labor, reminding myself of Mary’s sacrifice, of the world’s collective groaning, of the work it takes to wait well.
I’m sitting in the heartbreak of Advent, remembering that in order for our weary world to rejoice fully, we have to steep in the sadness. To appreciate the coming of the light, we have to endure the darkness.
I’m looking toward the birth of Christ with great anticipation, with great hope, and with a new appreciation for the fullness of God’s time.
And I’m reflecting on the pains our world is enduring as we wait for another advent, another coming of Christ. Bifrost Arts Music puts it this way:
In labor all creation groans till fear and hatred cease,
Till human hearts come to believe: in Christ alone is peace.”
This is what we’re waiting for, friends. We’re waiting for the calm after the coming, the peace after the pain. We’re waiting for fear and division and the pain of being broken open to subside and give way to unity, healing, and wholeness.
Let us wait well and with great expectation this Advent season.Let us wait well and with great expectation this #Advent season. Click To Tweet