Growing up in a non-liturgical church tradition, I understood Advent to be nothing more than a fancy countdown to Christmas. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I began exploring what Advent really is, or at least what it has become in the modern Western tradition.
I learned the word “advent” means “coming” and that it refers to Jesus’s birth centuries ago. The season begins four Sundays before Christmas, and each Sunday celebrates a different gift we enjoy through Christ—hope, peace, joy, and love—culminating in the celebration of the ultimate gift, Christ himself. The more I learned, the more established Advent became as my favorite liturgical season due to the hope I gleaned from it.
Then last year, I heard someone suggest that most modern Advent celebrations are missing an integral part of the experience. So focused on the celebration of Christmas, we largely ignore the discipline of waiting inherent in its historical observance. The suggestion stopped me in my tracks, upending my perception of the season. I realized that Advent had become for my heart what decorating is for my home. By focusing only on the hope and light, I was doing little more for my heart than hanging lights and decorating a tree in anticipation of the Christmas Day party. Certainly, such preparatory activities can be meaningful, and they do remind us of the reason we celebrate. Still I couldn’t shake the doubt that my own preparation lacked something essential.
But who wants to spend five weeks dwelling on the tension of unfulfilled longings in their life? It’s much more enjoyable to focus on hopeful exercises. Yet, as the new year approached I sensed the Lord prompting me to practice waiting instead of turning away from it. I felt convicted to observe a year of Advent.
Having no idea what that would look like, I chose to begin by reading Silence: And Other Surprising Invitations of Advent, a twenty-eight-day devotional exploring historical Advent themes through the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah. I started off strong, hopeful, and expectant, but two weeks in, my year went off the rails and it has yet to get back on track.
This last year brought one health crisis after another (and the hits keep coming), employment changes, and ongoing financial crises. For most of the year, I have been unable to write or sing, and some of the most traumatic experiences of my childhood abuse—wounds I’ve been incapable of exploring before now—are finally bubbling up to the surface, demanding attention. And I am still reading that same twenty-eight-day devotional, unlikely to finish before 2019 arrives. It has been a year of walking by faith in its rawest form, of true Advent waiting. And I can’t help but wonder, “What am I waiting for?”
At the beginning of this experiment, I believed the Lord had something grand to reveal that I couldn’t have imagined previously. Instead, two weeks in, I was longing for things far more basic: health, income, a reprieve from car repairs, stable employment, and freedom from processing the traumas I’ve had to survive.
The word advent is actually derived from the Greek word “parousia,” meaning “presence, arrival, or official visit,” which is generally used to refer not to the first coming of Christ but to the Second Coming. Historically, Advent was intended to focus our attention on the reality of our unfulfilled waiting, to remind us that all of our temporal longings root themselves in our longing for Jesus’s final rescue.
Knowing this, however, does not remove our need to wait—to endure a lifetime of journeying through a world that is not our home, carrying the burdensome effects of sin’s curse. The knowledge of a finish line doesn’t make the marathon any easier to run, but it does promise an end worthy of the perseverance. Advent’s purpose is to draw us back into that tension to prepare us to persevere through this life.
As I’ve trekked through this marathon of a year, I’ve been tempted to hide from the pain of my experiences, to question God’s faithfulness and presence as trouble steamrolls through my life. And in my weakness I have often given in. But observing Advent forces me out of hiding. It compels me to remain present, to reorient myself to the root of all my longings: the completion of all things and, ultimately, the One who will complete them.
Advent has become for me the faith to Christmas’s sight. It is a tangible manifestation of the already-but-not-yet, where God meets with me in my heart, walking and talking, leading and guiding, listening and comforting, remaining ever present in the flood, fire, and fatigue. In that space, he is introducing me to rhythms of life that equip me for enduring to the end of my race, the one that arrives at what Christmas offers only a taste of. After all, it’s the time spent living far from home that makes the homecoming so glorious.
A friend recently asked me what this Advent will be like for me having not had a break from it all year. I didn’t have an answer for her. The truth is I wonder more about the days after, about what I will do when my Advent experiment is done. What I do know, however, is that I remain in Advent waiting, and I will continue to do so until that moment when God finally brings his whole family home, complete, feasting, and celebrating together. Forever.
Cover image by fancycrave