As a child, my family did not fully celebrate Advent. We lit Advent candles at church, but we still put up Christmas decorations and sung Christmas songs during Advent (which is not exactly proper observance). As an adult, I have begun celebrating Advent, and I have found it to be very meaningful. Advent is a season of arrival, of preparation, of expectant waiting, of a longing for what will be but what is not yet. As the first season of the western Christian calendar, Advent gives us an opportunity to reorient our lives as we look forward to another year.
Advent is not about passive waiting, it is about expectation, yearning, longing, and hoping. Advent is a time to refocus our lives toward the end goal, which allows us to live more fully right now. In my view of the Christian tradition, this goal is restoration and redemption of all creation.
I live in Michigan, and here, Advent comes when the leaves have fallen, the birds have flown south for the winter, and bears have entered into their dens. While they are not necessarily linked, my spiritual formation around Advent has always included something of the transition into winter, as during my whole life they have come together. Winter looks dead, it is quiet, and it is still (snow storms excepted). Winter is a time when I feel my dependence on God most clearly. Winter can be harsh, unforgiving, and life-threatening.
For me, this transition to winter has served as a big object lesson for Advent. The oak tree outside my window looks barren, almost dead. It certainly looks like a shadow of its grandeur. I, at times, wonder, if a tree could have feelings, would it feel sad and grim? Perhaps. But I would also imagine that the tree would have hope of spring and the return of its leaves and its full foliage. That tree is not always destined to remain bleak and bare, but its leaves will be restored. Similarly, it is during Advent that I can experience feelings of desolateness, and bleakness, and barrenness to the very depths of my soul. But with this always comes the knowledge and expectation that an everlasting spring will dawn and the bleakness and barrenness will be replaced by fullness of beauty and redemption.
I have always thought it somewhat paradoxical that I find the greatest hope in the feelings of despair. I have always considered those as opposites. Perhaps, however, they are not opposites, but cousins of sorts, related closer than I have always thought. Perhaps the two need each other. But the despair I feel during times like this is certainly not total, because just when I think that winter brings death upon the world, I hear a child playing in the distance or a squirrel scamper across the shimmering white of the snow to serve as a reminder that winter is not death, winter is very much alive, one might just have to look a bit deeper. Likewise, Advent is a time when, though life may sometimes feel bleak and as though God has turned God’s face away, one may be able to find something, in some way, in which God may be saying, “Hang in there. Redemption is coming. Winter will end. I promise.”
The oak tree outside my window is not dead, it is very much alive, it is just winter, and the tree has prepared for it with the eager longing and expectation that spring will arrive and it will be able to grow leaves once again. The birds have flown south in the expectation that they will be able to return. The bears have retreated to dens believing and knowing that they will be able to emerge yet again.
Me? I long and prepare for restoration. I expectantly long for redemption, for justice, peace, and wholeness. What gives me hope in living is the belief that how things are now is not how they should be or will always be. I ultimately wait, in a very active way, for the Parousia – the coming of God. Advent gives me hope and pushes me forward to live fully with a renewed clarity on the ultimate goal of the gift of the beatific vision. This Advent season, like ones past, I expectantly wait and yearn, but most of all, I hope.