Oh that you would rend the heavens
and come down,
that the mountains might quake
at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known
to your adversaries,
and that the nations might tremble
at your presence! — Isaiah 64:1-2 (ESV)
This season of Advent arrives amidst a fraught year. Private and public troubles, traumas of nature and of humans’ hands. Fires, earthquakes, hurricane after hurricane. People victimized and victimizing. Sickness, disease, mental illness, death, mass murders. Famine and flight. Miscarriages and babies born who never breathed. Manipulation, lies, robbery, bribes. Nuclear threats. Global instability. Power-lust, ego, and greed. They’ve occurred with such frequency it seems we’re becoming inured to living with a tremor of dread for what comes next. Not that these are new, nor even their succession and proximity—Ecclesiastes tempers me and reminds there’s nothing new under the sun—but they are present and abundant, and I sense that our collective life will show trauma in the growth rings of this—or perhaps more truly, these—years.
How, then, to approach Advent, a season of hope? Hope comes more easily when our lives feel secure, when the likelihood of good makes sense in light of the present. But when the days offer ample reasons to despair, hope can sound profane; it’s too much for our sore spirits, our sleepless and sick bodies. And it is profane when hope thins into unrealistic optimism, false positivity, or language that distances and dismisses the pain before it. Real hope, grounded in expectation, differs from mere wishing, by which we pluck something likeable from the air. Hope suffers the intensity of brokenness and still expects healing, and its strength to do so depends on its source and its end.
Advent invites us to bring before God every weary and wasted place in us and around us, and it reveals to us, again and again, a hope that will confound us and restore us, in hints now and in fullness later, to more wholeness than we imagine possible. Dour as it presents, I think a meditation on our sorrow is a rightful place from which to anticipate God’s coming. When we circumnavigate real suffering, we also inhibit ourselves from knowing the immense hope that God extends to us in Jesus. Jesus, who enters the broken world and makes possible the new life, is our hope. In him, hope finds substantive grounding: God comes to us and will again, and he does so in this world. Hope moves out of the abstract and is manifested in the person of Jesus.
When Jesus arrived, he didn’t rid the world of evil or suffering, or else we wouldn’t experience them anymore. The world into which Jesus was born held all the ills that plague humanity, the roots of all human vices and follies, as it continues to, today. Yet, through his life, he defied death, defeated evil, and instituted a new kingdom which is already and not-yet. Thus, we glimpse the hem of eternity at times, even as we endure the pains of this as-yet unhealed world.
Robert Farrar Capon wrote that “We were given appetites not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great. That is the unconsolable heartburn, the lifelong disquietude of having been made in the image of God. All man’s love is vast and inconvenient … It is so much easier not to get involved—to thirst for nothing … But that, it seems to me, is neither human nor Divine.”
When we yearn for the world’s fullness, for injustices to be righted, sick to be well, dead to made alive, wars to cease, hunger and oppression and fear to be eradicated, it is because we know things are not as they should be. To keep thirsting is both to look back at Jesus coming to the world and to look forward to his return, and to renew our hope, tired as we may be, because our hope is Jesus himself.
As Bonhoeffer said, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”
How expansive his grace is, to respond to the calamities we make and bear, alone and together, and to open to us a new way.
Come, Lord Jesus. Come long expected One.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen. – Book of Common Prayer
Question for reflection
As you enter this Advent season, what burdens, sorrows, fears, and uncertainties do you carry with you? In what places of your life do you long for Jesus to come and fulfill the hope he has promised? How does Jesus speak to your longings and your hope?
Capon, Robert Farrar. The Supper of the Lamb. Modern Library, 2002. 189.
Robertson, Edwin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons. Zondervan, 2005. 21.