Every year about this time, we hear charges about the “War on Christmas.” I’m much more concerned about the “Neglect of Advent,” a season that’s about to begin. Advent is a month-long period at the start of the church year when many Christians prepare for the Christmas celebration. It’s a treasure of Christian tradition that often seems elbowed out of collective consciousness by the Christmas-creep that’s part of our commercial life. Advent is a time of reflection and hope.
Maybe I’m dwelling too much with the Ghost of Christmas Past, but not all that long ago I easily experienced the holiday season as a time of great joy. Pleasure came from being responsible to others, to our shared traditions, to our love for one another. These last several years, though, that old feeling comes less readily, less intensely. The march toward holidays feels much heavier, often on the verge of being like a fetter. The season brings with it a flood of memories. Memories slowly lose their kindness and they seem to haunt as they remind me of what’s lost, of who’s not with us anymore, of what’s gone and can’t be again.
Each year’s movement toward the holiday season feels more and more like a brutal reminder of all the people I can’t spend it with anymore, of all the family who’ve died, of people who gave me life but never got to see this chapter of it. I also feel keenly that I have not done enough — not enough on behalf of kindness or justice, not in the everyday moments or the long rhythms of years. Practices of hope, though, show ways forward. Reading good fiction during this season is one such practice for me.
For the last few years, it has been my custom during Advent to revisit Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel “Gilead.” (My colleague at Baylor, Alex Engebretson, has written a new book on Robinson, which I look forward to reading.) Robinson has a character observe that “precious things have been placed in our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.” As this season settles in and the church year begins anew, I remember that none of us are lost, though it might seem that way for a while. While nothing is forgotten, all things are made new, and all the precious things remain and can not be undone.
I recall a time last winter when the wind and cold were settling into Waco — my first in this bustling Heart-of-Texas city. I sat at my kitchen table, drinking a cup of hot chocolate, thinking about the good things in life. Suddenly, I was overtaken by a maudlin feeling, a sense that I missed certain opportunities. Life surely courses onward. But for a moment, it struck me that the possibilities other choices might have yielded deserved a moment of mourning.
Only in recognizing that a moment has passed am I better prepared to recognize a new precious thing that might come along. Opportunities come not only in the right timing but also in metanoia — conversion, the turning of my life and heart from one reality to another. Things have surely gone wrong in the world; I’ve also done wrong. But I believe that precious things show up — in friends, strangers, circumstances — to offer new beginnings. Advent brings a new year that whispers to us, “You’re in the story — exactly where you belong. You are enough.”
So I begin again the work of fulfilling this season’s claims — the work of seeing just how small my circle of concern has been, how narrow the scope of my vision, how guardedly I have spent my days. I too often fill my days with anxieties and angers, sorrows and sullenness. When sheer might seems like strength and credentials seem like wisdom, Advent reminds me that they are not strength or wisdom before a Middle Eastern Jewish child born under an empire’s threat of death. That child whom I await gives me hope that dark and uncertain times prepare me for growth, that discomfort can be holy ground, that joy is richer from having known grief, that connection requires risk, that life isn’t a test with set answers but a winding and precious journey.