Advent begins in the dark

Advent started yesterday, on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Most of us, if we observe advent at all will start on Wednesday with the opening of our calendars on the first of December. We consider it our three and a half week countdown to Christmas.

Which is all well and good, preparing for feasts makes a bigger deal of them. Except that isn’t what we do, for most of our culture except a few grouches and religious nuts (I’ll accept either) Christmas is about to begin.

One of the benefits of observing Advent is anti-Christmas creep. It isn’t Christmas yet, and it won’t be really until the 24th of December. Preparing for Christmas is good, but we prepare with a fast that gradually breaks, even if not a literal one. Christmas is a feast of light, Advent begins in the dark.

Getting in the mood

As we will see together over the coming weeks Advent isn’t really about Christmas, all the old liturgical works like the Book of Common Prayer make it about what is to come, and focus on John the Baptist. It’s the least ‘Christmasy’ thing you can imagine.

At some point in the next few weeks someone will ask you whether you’re feeling ‘Christmasy’ yet, or if you’re feeling ‘festive’. They’ll probably exclaim over the first mince pie of the season, that’s often the thing that gets you into the spirit. If you’re not from the UK the phrases may be different—and I’m told mince pies utterly confuse some other cultures—but you will I’m sure have similar stand-ins.

We spend the period getting ourselves in the mood for the feasting. A traditional advent makes a surprising claim: we should prepare for our feasting, but in completely the opposite way. We start instead in stark darkness, we consider judgement, repentance, the return of Christ and Hell. We read the difficult, gritty passages of the Bible and sit with our struggle until we meet the Judge of the earth in the face of a baby.

Advent starts in the darkness and stands as a critique to our sentimentality. Let’s be honest, Christmas in most of our cultural observances is a mushy mess. We love the little baby because who doesn’t love little babies? We love the nativity story because it’s a cute farce that sounds a little like a pantomime (another British Christmas tradition that doesn’t always translate). We love the lights and the food and the alcohol which is suddenly acceptable in the day at work and the food and the presents and the food and the wrapping paper. Did I mention the food?

But why was that baby born? We might know the shape of the story which includes a declaration from angels that this baby was born to save people, but it’s salvation from nothing without a cost. It’s a Christ who never grows up, a Christ without a cross.

Facing our own darkness

To prepare for the coming Christ we need to start by facing up to our own darkness and our world’s darkness. We deserve the wrath of God, but so does our world. If Lent is a season of personal penitence, then Advent should be one of corporate repentance. The world crumbles around us. The last couple of years have cast the faultlines in our cultures into stark relief: the inequalities, the injustice, the fragility of what seemed stable, the power-grabs, the grievance-mongering, the abuse and anguish writ large.

We need the wrath of God. God’s justice is good news. There is a day coming when the sky will be rolled up like a scroll (Isaiah 34, Revelation 6), and the Lord will judge the living and the dead. That means injustice of all kinds will be exposed and justly ended. That means that hatred, warfare, evil, sorrow, and pain will be swiftly ended. That means that the Enemy will lose. This is good news.

Sitting in the between is hard. That’s the stuff of Advent. We need to face up to the darkness in the world and begin to lament. We need to face up to what appears to be God’s slow return and lament. But let’s look our darkness full in the face. As the lights start to twinkle, and you can’t really avoid it, partake and enjoy it, but start a small counter-revolution in your heart. A rebellion that says, “not yet” to the warm and fuzzies. A refusal to let Christmas come too soon.

We do not flinch from the darkness.

A fearless inventory

So, how do we do that? Read my posts over the next few weeks, check out the poems and reflections I’m posting on Instagram. But more than that, Fleming Rutledge suggests we,

take a fearless inventory of the darkness: the darkness without and the darkness within.

The light of God breaks in at Christmas but rushing away from the pain of the in between times leads to a sort of emotional split personality, where we think that the struggle, the pain, and the unanswered questions have no place in church or the life of the Christian. Don’t be ridiculous. Read Habakkuk. This is the faith.

So, take a fearless inventory. Count the evils in the world and allow yourself to weep. Write them down if it helps, maybe burn them in your advent candle. It might feel cathartic, though it won’t change anything.

You might be driven to pray—please do, that will change many things. There is much hope for the world before the judgement, and we must pray. But before you do allow yourself to feel the pain. Don’t hide away the anguish or think it isn’t the right season for it. This is Advent, a season of tears.

He will wipe them away, but he hasn’t yet (Revelation 21).

If you follow this path, don’t let yourself off easy. Hear Rutledge’s words, take an inventory of the darkness, but also the darkness within. There is a tree of evil choking the world, you can see its tendrils and foul fruit, but where does the root of hell grow from?

Friends, it grows from your heart. It grows from mine. It grows from a thousand ordinary people committing ordinary sins, and a few committing spectacular acts of evil that we allow. We must repent. We must dig out the root.

And if you’re feeling particularly brave, why not ask the Spirit of God to point out the sin in your heart today. He will be much gentler than I, but that is a prayer he will always answer. Jesus will be kind, but he is relentless in his desire to make you fit for the future you will inherit.

This is Advent. We prepare for Christmas, sure, but we do so by considering the judgement of God. We do so by learning to wait. We do so with stark honesty and hot tears. This is the way of Jesus.

Photo by Carolina Pimenta on Unsplash

To subscribe and receive email notifications for future posts, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page.

Would you like to support my work? You can give using PayPal or Cash App.