“Are you getting ready for Christmas?” asks a tall woman with a blonde pony tail and Lululemon yoga capris. It’s the Thursday after Thanksgiving and my first time back at Body Pump after a week of sitting and playing and being cozy in Wisconsin.
“Oh, yeah,” says Michelle, the instructor. “Everything’s up. My shopping’s almost done.”
“Wow,” says the blonde woman. “That’s incredible.”
Good grief, I think. That’s ridiculous. It’s not that I’m opposed to getting things done early (though being chronically “casually late” might suggest otherwise), but as someone who prizes the celebration of harvest and has scarcely had time to think about pulling out her own decorations, as someone who travels over the holidays and has but one bag in which to bring any pre-purchased gifts, this being done three weeks in advance seemed absurd.
“Yeah,” Michelle says, “I tell the kids to enjoy it now, because the day after Christmas it’s out of there.”
I feel my heart drop with my hand weights as I release them into their color-coded bins. The day after Christmas? The sacred day of rest and celebration (affectionately deemed “Lazy Day” in the Kuehn household). Out of there? Over?
“I like to start the new year clean,” Michelle says. “Right now my house is filled with all of this Christmas clutter. And it’s cozy and cute, but as soon as Christmas is over, it’s gone.”
I don’t feel obliged to add to the conversation—to start preaching on the real “reason for the season” or bring up the fact that traditionally, the celebration of Christmas begins on December 25, with the twelve days of Christmas carrying us until epiphany on January 6, not the closet-clearing clean sweep that kicks off a new year.
I am a little sad for Michelle, not because her soul hasn’t been saved or because she doesn’t know the true meaning of Christmas (though if she doesn’t, that too is something that would warrant sadness), but because she—like so many of us—is missing the rhythm of the season. Not of Christmas, but of Advent.
By way of a quick intro (because sometimes church language can be confusing), Advent is a four-week season in the liturgical (i.e., church) calendar. It is actually the start of the liturgical year, which is a little confusing, since it happens in November. For the layperson (like me), it is the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, though more technically it is the four weeks leading up to Christmas.
Advent has long been my favorite time of year (returning readers might recognize this from months or years back). I used to claim my favorite season was Christmas (and maybe for a time it was), but while Christmas celebrates the gift of an arrival, Advent recognizes the waiting, longing, and hoping. And year after year that waiting and longing grows deeper in my soul. It permeates the marrow of my bones and the corners of my heart, all of the cold and broken places, the rooms I rope off and desires I’ve learned to ignore. Advent brings them to light, blowing breath onto embers of hopes I thought I had abandoned and bringing to blaze the longings that fuel my reason for being.
Advent has always been a season of preparation. As a child that preparation meant memorizing songs for the annual Christmas program and reciting lines in front of my grandparents in a stiff frilly dress with white lace and ribbons; watching the wax drip down purple and pink candles on the Advent wreath; frosting sugar cookie cut outs and dipping holiday-shaped pretzels; cutting, gluing, and ripping red and green paper chains; playing “We Sing for Christmas” compositions on my clarinet; and hand-stitching ornaments while listening to Amy Grant, Barbara Streisand, and John Denver and the Muppets on repeat in my bedroom.
I would get so excited by the anticipation of celebration that there were nights I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t just that I looked forward to opening the presents my mother had so artfully wrapped and arranged under our tree (though certainly that was a part of it), but it was also the way that the longing and the waiting resonated in my small soul, the way I hoped with all of my heart, though I couldn’t quite articulate what I was hoping for: Our traditional family dinner? Wearing my best dress to the Christmas Eve service? Watching my dad unwrap the hankies I’d purchased with my own $8.00? Eating peanut butter blossoms while watching White Christmas in front of the fireplace in my pajamas?
It was all of these things, and then it was more. It was watching as the last candle was lit in the center of the Advent wreath—the white candle, the Christ candle, the symbolized end of all longing. That is what I hoped for. Even before I could say so, I longed for the Ransom, the Redeemer, the One who would make all things new.
It’s sad how briefly we see that white candle lit. Like Michelle’s Christmas clutter, it seems to be whisked out of the church just a little too quickly, the candles of Advent no longer flanking it, reminding us of the waiting that we endured. But maybe that is a reflection of how the world is right now. A savior has come, but he is also coming. The world is won, but it is also being redeemed. Like my life. Like each of our lives.
Right now I am waiting and longing—deeper, harder, and in more ways than I have ever known. I swim through pools of uncertainty and I wonder when I will reach land. I resonate with Advent. It gives words and songs and meaning to my longing, connecting me with ancient Israel and a pregnant Mary, with Syrian refugees, hungry children, a war-torn world, and a homeless man named Gregory who rides a gold bike and sells the Street Spirit on the corner. Advent does not make too much of my desire, but it does not make light of it either. It does not in itself end my longing, but it does promise that an end is coming.
I have a friend who has thoughtfully read and absorbed much of the writing I’ve done since moving to California. “It is often sad, sometimes very sad, but there is always a turn,” he once told me. “There is always some hope at the end.”
It is the truest thing I can say about life in this world. That there is always a turn. There is always hope. This is the only way we can wake up day after day and go on week after week even in the face of failure, heartache, and what seems to be the end. This is the reason for Advent. It is not a time to clutter, but to strip away, to shed the comforts with which we surround ourselves and recognize our dire and mutual need for hope and grace and mercy, all of which are found only in the Advent of a Savior, only in the coming of a Christ.