2010 may still be a month away, but the new year has already begun. Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent—the first season in the church calendar year. Everything has reset, with newness and hope the only items on the agenda.
It was a crazy week and a crazy year for me. So many friends and family have lost their jobs. So many deaths, divorces, other bad things. Stresses keep coming, overwhelming as they always are. Mistakes made, plans foiled, Michael Jackson dead. Old and new friends enrich my life. Old and new struggles carry on.
But God with us. Emmanuel. We have reason to push on in faith.
Advent. It's about anticipating and reflecting upon the mystery that is the Incarnation: the nearly incomprehensible moment when God entered human history by becoming a baby on earth.
God is with us. He's not just some far-off abstraction or disembodied clockmaker idea. He became one of us. A human. Callouses, stomachaches, blood. And not only that, but he came as a baby! He could have appeared out of thin air as a 21 year old, or as a 30-year-old prophet ready for some serious ministry. But he chose to start where everyone else starts: in the womb. His incarnation was always about working through—not outside of—creation to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand. And a baby who is born and grows up and dies is something we can understand. It was God coming down to our level to bless our unfortunate little existence by becoming part of it. He came to be with us.
Advent reminds us that, in the midst of everyday struggles, we must affirm the reality of the everyday Incarnation. Jesus lived this life too. He also experienced it on good days and bad. He was rained on too. He probably had migraines occasionally. You better believe he knew suffering.
I love that Advent simultaneously forces us away from ourselves and our petty problems while also, in a way, affirming them. It’s a season of denying our self and our possibility in the face of the wholly Other that is the mysterious, Incarnate Emmanuel. But it’s also a chance for us to focus, to synthesize our various desires, issues, concerns, and identities into a cohesive oneness with the bewildering fact that we are here, and so is God. He is with us. There’s a reason why we sing “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” We share a planet—the dirt, air, water, DNA—with the creator of the universe. This is the most empowering and humbling fact of history, and the weight of it is immense. It is the reason Advent is historically a very solemn season: because the Incarnation cannot be taken lightly.
As I enter into Advent this year, I’m burdened by just as many hopes and fears as the next guy. There is pain and regret in my heart, love and confusion, physical and emotional imperfection, and immense exhaustion. I sometimes just want to drink eggnog or mulled wine and listen to Over the Rhine’s Darkest Night of the Year (for the record, probably the best Christmas album of all time) while languishing in self-pity and world weariness as stocks and bombs carry the torch of history’s tumultuous march.
But Advent accepts all that. It thrives on unsettledness, uncertainty, despair. Which is kind of bleak for a holiday season that is typically thought of as the merriest season of all. Until we recognize that our pain makes Advent all the more meaningful—to look forward, expectantly, longingly, to the moment when all the pieces (of our lives, of history, of heaven and earth) come together in a monstrous cymbal crash that reverberates in every corner and cranny of the concert hall.