Every time I sit down to write in the month of December my hearts turns toward Advent. I did not grow up in a Christian tradition that focused on Advent, and our wider culture certainly does not. Everywhere we look it’s go, go, go, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, joy and cheer. While my home and my calendar don’t always reflect the slow build, the anticipation of advent (I will be the first to admit I shamelessly put my Christmas tree up the first week of November), my heart and soul certainly do.
December is a complicated month for me. Seven years ago, profoundly pregnant with my firstborn, I wrote an Advent reflection for my former church about joy. I reveled in the parallel between awaiting the birth of our Lord Jesus and that of Max. I wrote, “Spencer and I are filled with joy as we anticipate the arrival of our baby who we know will change our lives. And as we wait for Max, we also celebrate the Advent and wait with great joy and anticipation for the arrival of Christ, who changes everything.”
And then two days after Christmas in 2016, Max did come, but he didn’t get to stay. And he certainly did change our lives, just not in the way we expected. Then exactly a year later, two days after Christmas in 2017, our oldest living child, Lachlan, was born, filling our hearts with the deepest joy while the weight of his presence cast even greater shadows on the absence of Max.
Now every December, as I prepare my heart for the coming of Christ, I walk the tightrope of joy and despair as I celebrate Christmas with my two living babies while missing the one who isn’t here. I anticipate the birth of the Messiah and also the complicated day that holds the birth of my two boys and the death of one - greatest joy and deepest sorrow, mingled together.
I also find myself desperately missing my only sibling - a younger brother who has been estranged from me for nearly 7 years. My first friend and closest confidante for over two decades is now gone, of his own choosing. I’m not sure I’ll ever wrap my head and heart around the pain and aloneness I feel, untethered from the person I shared a childhood with.
On top of the layers of loss I always feel in Deccember, this year my heart frequently stirs for a dear friend who is carrying a child while battling stage 4 cancer, as she tries to make Christmas memories with her sons in midst of chemo treatments. My heart is burdened to know of multiple local families whose lives have been turned upside in recent months. Not to mention the families and lives torn apart in Israel and Palestine.
While I know I “should” feel Christmas cheer, and joy, and all the sparkly and bright things, I find myself sitting in the shadows of loss, brokenness, and deepest pain. Herein lies the beauty and gift of Advent.
In her book Bittersweet, Shauna Niequist writes, “There are moments in this season when I don’t feel a whole lot like Christmas, but I do feel like Advent. Advent gives us another option beyond false Christmas cheer or Scrooge. Advent says the baby is coming, but he isn’t here yet, that hope is on its way, but the yearning is still very real. Sometimes, depending on what we’ve lost this year, Advent saves us from giving up on Christmas and all its buoyant twinkling-light hope forever. Advent allows us to tell the truth about what we’re grieving, without giving up on the gorgeous and extravagant promise of Christmas, the baby on his way.” (pg 91)
As I struggle to feel the easy joy I once felt in the holiday season, I’m profoundly thankful for Advent. For this reminder that while the yearning is hard and heavy, it’s also hopeful. Advent is a reminder that things are not as they should be - that this world is broken and in need of a Savior. That this world is broken, and therefore bodies are broken and relationships strained. My yearning and my grieving reminds my heart why it so badly needs Jesus.
And, of course, we have the privilege of knowing that the baby is on the way, and that he will make all things right and new.
In Luke 4 Jesus enters the synagogue and reads these words about himself from Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As we sit in the Advent season and await the coming of Christ as a baby, we can know hope, and peace, and joy, and love because we know Jesus. Jesus, who was born into a broken, physical, human body. A body that felt headaches, and splinters, and nausea, and exhaustion. With a human heart that felt overwhelmed, and worried, and burdened, and deeply sad.
Jesus, our great high priest, sympathizes with our weakness. In his time on Earth, he knew the depth of pain and loss and can truly understand our weariness, our longing, and our heartbreak. And he came to bring favor and joy to people he knew desperately needed it.
If you find yourself struggling to access the hope, peace, joy, or love of this Christmas season, know that you are not alone. We rest in the messiness of the inbetween, the knowing and the waiting, with a heart of advent and anticipation of what is yet to come, The restlessness or fear or grief or loneliness you feel does not diminish the hope and the peace and the joy and the love; it’s simply a reminder that while Jesus came as that baby many years ago, we are actually still waiting. We’re waiting for his return, the day when, “there will be more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain.” (Revelation 21:4 NIV) The day when heaven crashes down to Earth and all is made new and right once and for all. The day when our joy will be made complete in his presence.
Merry Christmas to us. Merry Christmas, indeed.
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