I have this sneaky suspicion that most Christians don’t really understand what advent is. Or, rather, it’s not that they don’t get what it is so much as they don’t get what it isn’t. Everybody – Christian or not – can tell you that the “reason for the season” is more than Santa and gifts for Christians, and a few will even point to what the word advent means – a “coming,” a hope that “God with us” will be a reality we experience. It serves as both a reminder of the birth of Jesus but also points to a future hope of God’s breaking into the world to redeem it from its brokenness.
In that sense, we seem to get that advent is about hope despite despair. And that’s an important message. The world is filled with reasons to doubt that anything good will happen for us, and advent seems to indicate that we still have reason to be thankful, encouraged, optimistic. But this is also where I think we get advent so dead wrong.
Advent is not about your circumstances changing. It doesn’t offer that kind of hope. But that’s the kind of hope we seem to be most hopeful for. Because it’s tangible. When we’re sick, we pray for a cure when there may not be one. When we’re alone we long for someone to fill that void, but they may not come. When we’re out of work, we search and search for something to come along and pin our hopes on a job coming through, but even if one does, that is no evidence of God’s presence in this world. Yet, we seem incapable of separating our material happiness from what God has done for us, and that couldn’t be more off.
God has not blessed you by giving you a job or a spouse or good health or money in the bank. To say as much is to suggest that for those who have-not, God has damned them. And it means when those things suddenly don’t work out for you, when your circumstances change, you’ve been abandoned by the divine. It’s a cheap understanding of God and how God works, and it’s a good reason for people to give up on God and on the Church if that’s the kind of hope the Church is supposed to rest on.
Of course, we like to assume when we ignore the other side of that coin, the poor lot for whom things didn’t work out, that we would never suggest they’re damned in saying that we’re just happy for us and what God has done for us. That’s all we mean, we say. But, too often, I see that mentality playing out when I see justifications of why the poor are poor: that the have-nots didn’t work hard enough, that they must not have trusted God the way the haves trusted God or “prayed without ceasing” the way the haves must have. The people who believe this are many, and I’m convinced they’ve never spent any real time among the poor if they can believe that God works in this way.
Advent is a time to acknowledge the coming of “God with us” for Christians, but it is not an all-powerful God, like a super-hero, who has come to offer to change our circumstances or fix our material problems; after all, this God we worship didn’t even offer to change his own luck – a luck that ends in death. That is, it’s a different kind of hope this God offers, one that says there can be joy despite how bad things are. That doesn’t mean we are to be content with our circumstances or give up trying to make them better. It means we understand them differently regardless of how they turn out. There may be no cure to the illnesses, the broken ways of life, but there can be acceptance and healing of wholeness despite whatever end they bring. And that’s near impossible to wrap our heads and hearts around. I think we may even have to be broken pretty badly before we learn to accept it, and I fear sometimes not all of us get there. But whether we do or not, I think we need to be careful about how we celebrate what we think “God” has done for us. I think we should check ourselves if we ever suggest others deserved less, didn’t work hard enough, didn’t pray hard enough or trust God enough. Christmas, at the very least, should be a time where the God with and present to us isn’t present to us because of what lot in life we’ve been dealt. Otherwise, it isn’t Christmas at all, because there’s tragedy front and center in the birth of the Christ-child. You miss that, you’ve missed the whole damn point.