I grew up in a home that made Christmas a beautiful experience year after year. We had all the customs and traditions that characterized most American families of that day—a tree, lights, presents, special food, decorated cookies. But there was so much more. My parents made it a Christ-centered event. It revolved around the church and the home, but we were always taught to care for those who suffered. So Christmas included adopting families, visiting elderly people in our church, and welcoming people into our home so they wouldn’t be alone on Christmas Day.
We didn’t live a sheltered life. While we were not a wealthy family, we knew we were blessed and that many other people didn’t experience the warmth and love that was part of our lives. I knew that not everyone celebrated Christmas like we did. But as I look back, I realize that I assumed all Christians did.
So imagine my surprise in late adolescence and early adulthood when I discovered that the “Christmas Season” as it is practiced in our culture is not always a good thing. In fact, sometimes it is the most dreaded time of the year—a time of deep depression, a time of great loneliness and even a time when people are more susceptible to taking their own lives. I’ve learned that the manner in which our culture approaches Christmas often exacerbates the pain and suffering in the world.
I discovered that the Christmas Season doesn’t work. But many years later, I discovered that Advent does.
No, I’m not playing word games. The Christmas Season our culture observes—which begins mid-November and extends to Christmas Day—is a radical departure from the Christian tradition of Advent. And it can destroy people.
Christmas time in America is a time for fantasy. We see commercials with perfect families in beautiful homes and a Lexus in the driveway with a big bow on top. All the Hallmark movies have happy endings. We’re told that “special something” is the “magic of Christmas” or the “Christmas spirit.” And even when people try to speak out against the materialism of Christmas, they usually still talk in abstract terms, saying that Christmas is about family.
But fantasies don’t last very long. So when we’ve outgrown the fantasy, we determine that we’ll keep it alive for the children. Or sometimes we look for the magic in nostalgia, hoping our traditions will give us a few moments of remembered peace and joy. Maybe the sights, sounds and smells will conjure something “magic” inside for a few minutes. But this can be so destructive.
Depending on your current level of pain, the season can be anything from inadequate to downright disgusting. If you’ve just lost your spouse to a debilitating disease, it’s pretty tough to hear about the joy of the season. If you’re estranged from your family, the “Christmas is family” meme puts a knot in your stomach. And if you’re dealing with major disappointment with God, you actually feel insulted when you hear that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”
But Advent stands in stark contrast to the fantasy of the Christmas Season.
The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival.” And, contrary to our culture’s approach, the weeks before Christmas are actually characterized by mourning. That’s right, mourning.
You see, Advent is a reality check. It acknowledges pain, suffering, and oppression. Advent is no fantasy. It calls us to face our doubts and fears, our sins and disappointment—even our disappointment with God.
We allow Advent to move us from pain to yearning. We talk about hope because Advent helps us to be open to the possibility that God has not forgotten us—that God is still God and we are still his children.
So we grasp the first Advent by re-living it. Our suffering leads to yearning, which—by God’s help—leads us to hope. Then we can begin to see peace and love and even joy may be part of our future. And it is because of the child that was called Emmanuel—which means “God with us.”
If you are suffering, don’t let our cultural December rituals define Christ’s coming. Instead, thank God for the honesty of Advent. Instead of allowing pain to destroy the sense of God’s presence, learn from Advent that we can actually invite God into our pain. Not because we understand it. We don’t. Not because we’ve come to grips with it. We are always in that process. But we invite God to share our pain simply because He is God and He has chosen to enter our living space. That’s the painful yearning and profound beauty of Advent.
My Advent begins with mourning. Two years ago, my granddaughter, Lily, arrived and left us on the same day. So now on November 25 we gather together and sing “Happy Birthday, dear Lily.” Then we release balloons and shed a few tears. I see the pain on the face of my daughter and son-in-law and leave with a heavy heart. The Christmas of our culture won’t sustain us. But our yearning for God, our belief that God is with us—and with Lily—will and does sustain us.
Although I didn’t come from a tradition that talked about Advent, I now realize that the Christmas of my childhood was, indeed, Advent. We looked for Christ in the poor and in the lonely, and found him in our home.
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears
— 18th Century Advent Hymn