Advent is not just the waiting and watching we do in December as we prepare for the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus. Advent is the training ground for how to live as watchful, expectant people the entire year. Expectancy (as I’ve said in other posts) is not about entitlement or having my personal agenda met; it is about remembering what it feels like to be wide-eyed and full of wonder in spite of tons of evidence to the contrary.
During Advent we are reminded of the paradoxes and incongruities of life:
Light and Darkness
Faith and Fear
Joy and Sorrow
Vulnerability and Power
Weakness and Strength
Done, but not Complete
Already and Not Yet
These pairs of contrasting ideas are not just for Advent. They are the daily themes and dilemmas of ordinary, everyday Christians–the people who believe that an embodied, flesh-and-blood Messiah has already come, but that the transformation of the world is not yet complete.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann describes Advent with an elegant paradox. “Advent does not begin in buoyancy or celebration or in a shopping spree. The natural habitat of Advent is a community of hurt. It is the voice of those who know profound grief, who articulate it and do not cover it over. But this community of hurt knows where to speak its grief, toward whom to address its pain….And because the hurt is expressed to the One whose rule is not in doubt, the community of hurt is profoundly a community of hope.”*
What Brueggemann describes is what I imagine as the Body of Christ. I would love to say that Church is both a community of hurt and a community of hope. But many of the churches I have attended and maybe many of your churches are not safe places for hurt. The Church is not always a place where I feel I can show up with all of my weaknesses and my sorrows. It often does good works for the weak and suffering in the broader community outside its walls, but we don’t often share our own hurt and failures. As a consequence, I see little expression of real hope and joy within.
And I know I/we have failed when absent church members say to me: “I’ll come back to church when I lose 20 pounds; I’ll come to church after my divorce; I’ll come to church when my son gets out of treatment; I’ll come to church when I get a job.” Their shame and their sorrow are too embarrassing to bring through the church door. Without their life all scrubbed and together they don’t want to come.
As someone who has had a lifelong relationship with Church, I think, “If we cannot bring our hurt and our brokenness into the nave, what business are we in? We live in a culture and a country of “brokenness avoidance.” It’s not okay to be less than perfect or at least on the way to perfection—even in church.
The one place people describe as both a community of hurt and a community of hope is the Twelve Step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. The assumption when you walk in the door is that you hurt, that you are broken, that your life is unmanageable. You can no longer do life without a community or without a Higher Power. This is a community of brokenness. In sharing brokenness, there is laughter and prayer and healing. “In the rooms” people share their “experience, strength, and hope.” But they can only share those things because of their weakness. Their powerlessness and the unmanageability of their lives is the ticket into “the rooms.” Weakness and strength are both part of the package. First a community of hurt, then a community of hope. This is what Advent looks like.
*Walter Brueggemann, Advent /Christmas Proclamation 3: Aids for Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year, Series B (Philadlephia: Fortress, 1984), 9.