I need Advent every year, because my heart is always longing. St. Augustine describes the heart as being constantly pushed and pulled, always in flux. Our love, according to Augustine, is our “gravitational force” or “our weight.” The problem is that our weight is always shifting and looking for a place to rest, often to lesser things. Rightly ordered, it is like a flame which pulls us to greater, higher, and better loves. Wrongly ordered, it is like a stone which pushes us down to lesser, inferior things.
In today’s world of excitement and holiday cheer, the advent season and the Christmas story lack the longing. It is the rest without the journey. We get excited by the word advent, which means arrival. And arrivals are fun! Who doesn’t remember the intense, visceral expectation of Santa coming to town? But the excitement of getting to grandma’s house often requires the long drive. Are we there yet?
Between the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures and the birth of Christ, four hundred years passed with seeming silence from God. Generation after generation, each new birth signaled hope of the Messiah. Hopeful saviors came and went, people like Moses who would lead the people out of slavery, like David who would establish the Kingdom and drive out enemies, or like any of the many prophets who would speak truly the things of God. And generation after generation experienced continued silence, continued waiting. There was reason to give up hope, to despair, to stop waiting, to eat, drink, and be merry for even the hopeful Messiahs have died.
In this season, my heart longs and waits. It is expectant for something. Despite the exciting news that we’ve made Christmas great again, America appears to be anything but great. Whether it be the constant news of mass shootings in public places, the moral failings of cultural leaders, the disregard for ecological disaster, or the emergence of white supremacy as a viable way of life, our situation seems bleak. Scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, nearly every other status is filled with rage. It seems like everyone is trying to find the worst in the other. Understanding and empathy go by the wayside. Might is right; anger is justified. Cries of “How long, O Lord?” seem to bellow more often than not.
And that’s only considering what we can quickly see and perceive. There’s also the inner turmoil of my own relationships and within my own heart. Feelings that I should be more independent from consumerism, that my garden should be more fruitful, that my intimacy with God more intense, that my marriage should be stronger by now; or that I should be a more engaged, attentive father. God, are you out there? This doesn’t seem to be working! My heart longs for something different, something else, something more…
And just when it seems to be darkest, light seeps through the cracks. Advent is a reminder that God has not forgotten—that He is faithful to His promises, that we’re not left to our own devices, that he hears and knows.
One of my mentors repeats a phrase: “When you love, you give.” In Christ, we see God’s mission of love and sacrifice and welcome. Christ shows up on the scene and calls to himself a raggedy bunch of uneducated men. He sits and walks and eats with sinners. Christ, being God, could have shown up and condemned—we have, after all, failed at meeting the commands of God. But he doesn’t chastise humanity whom he created; rather, in the midst of despair and hopelessness, God shows up and “moves into the neighborhood” as Eugene Peterson’s Message is often quoted. He is present with us and receives us. This Christ who was receiving honor and glory and praise day and night in the heavenly places did not count equality with a God to be grasped, but made himself nothing, into the form of a servant (Philippians 2.6-8). He left his rightful place in his heavenly home to wash filthy feet and die on a bloody cross.
The beauty of Advent is not in the waiting or in baby Jesus: It is receiving. When the Word becomes flesh, we see and we receive. This is the simple message of the gospel: See and receive! The world’s problems don’t disappear. My fight for sanctification does not end. My marriage problems may persist. But we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. From this fullness made evident in Jesus Christ, we receive grace upon grace. The light does not merely seep in; it bursts onto the scene and overcomes my nagging sense of guilt and shame.
As a cup at capacity, the longing soul is overwhelmed by grace; this fullness does not permit the emptiness to remain. My performance will not attain a special status, my internal struggles may pester me for the rest of my life, my parenting will always fall short of perfect, but grace has come down and dwells among us. I see and I receive. I do not give or perform or obey or do. I see Christ, and I receive grace. This is the sum of the Christian life. Wave after wave of grace overflowing with grace overflowing with more grace. Advent is a gospel reminder that I live and move and have my being by the grace of Christ.
And so while we wait in the season of Advent, we see and receive more and more. There is another day for which we long and for which we hope. There will be a day where struggle will end, tears will cease, marriages will heal, the broken will be bound, the downcast will be lifted. It is for this day that we continue to wait and pray and long. But along the way, we see His glory full of grace and truth, and we receive grace upon grace.