Advent has begun. Many of us are already preparing our homes and families to observe this season of the Church calendar.
But how could we possibly celebrate Advent if we are paying attention to this world?
How do we make merry when our hearts are broken by Paris, by Syria, by Kenya, by Beirut, by Japan, by Burundi? When, in response to every crisis, our communities seem splintered and divided in how to respond, and careless words are flung like rocks at our own glass houses? When, closer to home, perhaps we are lonely or bored or tired or sick or broke?
In these days, celebration can seem callous and uncaring, if not outright impossible.
But here’s the thing about Advent: we celebrate precisely because we are paying attention.
It’s precisely because everything hurts that we prepare for Advent now.
We don’t get to have hope without having grief. Hope dares to admit that not everything is as it should be, and so if we want to be hopeful, first we have to grieve. First we have to see that something is broken and there is a reason for why we need hope to begin with.
Advent matters, because it’s our way of keeping our eyes and our hearts and our arms all wide open.
The weary world is still waiting in so many ways, in so many hearts, in so many places, for the fullness of the Kingdom of God to come.
So here is what we listen for and what we mark and why we wait and light candles and read Scripture in preparation over these long winter nights: it’s real. The love, the peace, the joy, the hope is possible and it’s real and it’s among us already.
God is with us. The prophet Isaiah called out into the wilderness:
Energize the limp hands,
strengthen the rubbery knees.
Tell fearful souls,
“Courage! Take heart!
God is here, right here,
on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs.
He’s on his way! He’ll save you!” —Isaiah 35:3-4
Advent is the Church’s way of observing and remembering, of marking the truth we believe that God came to be with us once, and God is still with us, and God is coming again to set all things right.
It’s holding the truth of what is right now up to the truth of what was and what will be and then responding, like Mary sang to Elizabeth in her Magnificat: blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!
It is declaring that we believe it still: God is redeeming all that is broken in us and curing all that is sick in us and bringing all that is dead in us to life.
It’s because of the heart of the story that we can light candles in the pressing and cold darkness, blazing up warmth and light for peace and for hope and for joy and for love.
Every word of God, the Word of God himself, is true and is coming true.
And Advent reminds us that God seeks us out where we are right now. Not where we should be by our own or anyone else’s estimation.
God seeks us out when we are in exile and when we are suffering, when we are callous and cowardly, when we are more concerned with common sense than faithfulness, when we are fearful and arrogant, when we are lost and broken, when we feel forgotten and bored and insignificant and tired, when we are wounded and when we are the ones who are wounding.
Oh, yes, in these days, God is seeking us out on that path and in that wilderness. And the voice of the prophets of Advent cry out in that very place: Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here!
Immanuel, God with us. Incarnate and alive and now. Prepare your hearts: fear not.