“Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Proverbs 13:12

Advent has a lot going for it in my mind. In the liturgical year it marks the end of the long drudgery of “ordinary time” and the beginning of a journey that carries us through Easter and Pentecost. It’s a season imbued with hope and joy. I love the songs that we sing—songs of longing that point to the resolution in Jesus. I have a particular fondness for the Advent wreath that rests on our dining room table. We countdown the days to Christ’s coming by watching the purple and pink candles slowly come alight. There are a set number of days until Christmas, so it’s just a matter of simple mathematics.

I’m reminded of the story of Prometheus, that mythological god who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to mortals. For that and other transgressions Zeus chained him to a mountain where he was continually tormented by an eagle that would eat at his flesh, condemned to continually suffer without the release of death. In Aeschylus’s play we learn another reason for his horrific punishment. As he lies there suffering the chorus approaches him:

Chorus
Iron-hearted and made of stone, Prometheus, is he who feels no compassion at your miseries. For myself, I would not have desired to see them; and now that I see them, I am pained in my heart.

Prometheus
Yes, to my friends indeed I am a spectacle of pity.

Chorus
Did you perhaps transgress even somewhat beyond this offence?

Prometheus
Yes, I caused mortals to cease foreseeing the doom of their death.

Chorus
Of what sort was the cure that you found for this affliction?

Prometheus
I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.

Mortals had been cursed with knowledge. They knew all two well that the life of humans is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. For them, that shortness was not a vague sense of danger that they might be dragged into eternity at any moment; it was written on the calendar like a doctor’s appointment. Prometheus thought this cruel. He thought mortals should not be destined to live lives of confirmed desperation, resigned to embracing the absurd finitude of mortality. So he blessed mortals with ignorance, and gave them blind hope instead. Death was thus transfigured from a depressing inevitability to a rude interruption.

Advent is like mortal life before Prometheus’s rash move. It is a finite season with a marked ending. We all know that it will end on December 25, so we are willing to think about waiting for a few weeks. But we would do well to remember that while Advent is necessarily a set period of time, it points to a different reality. Advent is about waiting for God to interrupt the world. This kind of waiting is not like waiting for a date to come on the calendar or for the immanent mechanisms of history and politics to bring the change they constantly talk about; this kind of waiting is hope that God will break into our world like an earthquake.

In dark Nazi prison in November of 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.” God’s entrance into the world is not the consequence of human activities or the passing of time. God’s coming is a rupture of time itself. For this, we wait. That’s all we can do.

At Advent, we remember the generations of people who hoped and prayed for God’s salvation to come. They lived and died longing for the comfort spoken of in Isaiah 40 to be realized. When it finally came it came in a small forgotten corner of occupied Palestine.

Merry Christmas from the Bethlehem Ghetto

Merry Christmas from the Bethlehem Ghetto

At first brush, it seems strange that Advent and Christmas fall during this dark season. Why do we remember the mystery of the Incarnation, that most joyous event, when the earth is barren, dark, and cold? Does not summertime with its flowering life seem like a better time to celebrate the birth of the life-giving Christ?

The birth of Jesus is good news, indeed the best possible news—no; more than that—the impossible news. It’s the impossible news that God has not left us to fend for ourselves. It’s the news that God opens the jail cell and strikes off the fetters of the languishing prisoners. Nothing could be more joyous than this.

Yet, this good news comes right in the midst of all of the bad news we know so well:

The death of a friend.
The unbreakable pain of chronic illness.
The stress of financial instability.
The pain and death inflicted upon black and brown bodies by a deeply racist society.
The heartsickness of loneliness.

It is in the middle these, our coldest nights, our darkest days, when the sun seems to withhold its warmth, that Christ comes. That is why we celebrate Christmas in the middle of the dark, short days of winter.

On Sunday a few of us from the Lotus House went to a service called the Longest Night at a church downtown. Gathered with a few dozen others, we remembered and prayed for the people who died homeless in St. Louis this past year. We left the somber service with candles to gather outside for a closing prayer. The bitter cold of the wind blew all of the candles out. Not one person could hold their light against the darkness of this night. That is Advent. Remembering that Christ, the light of the world, brings brightness to the deepest recesses of this barren world.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”
John 1:5

I can think of no more fitting picture of Advent than protesting injustice and death in the midst of the darkness of the world. For it is to those who are in prison, those who are struggling to keep candles lit, and those who are longing for comfort that the word of comfort finally comes, and comes like an earthquake.

Justice Will Roll Down

Justice Will Roll Down

“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”
~Oscar Romero

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