The heavy blanket of winter darkness settles in. Some wrap it around themselves in comfort, nestling into the rest the shift in seasons brings. To many others, the weight feels too heavy, restrictive and suffocating.
I am familiar with the darkness. I have not found it to be a hospitable place. Rather, I have found it to be a cold, empty space with sharp-cornered furniture I cannot see that leaves me with bruised shins and hips. Through the years of journeying with mental illness and lingering trauma wrought by the sin of others as well as my own, I have been thrust into the darkness more times than I care to recall. No matter how familiar the space, I am not at home. My spirit aches, my body curls inward, and my mind becomes a throbbing echo chamber of my own worst fears.
Where is God?
This is not a new question. The Christian tradition has a rich history of engaging with Deus absconditus: the hiddenness of God. Many biblical characters have cried out to God in despair and fear, demanding God show God’s self. The prophet Isaiah concludes, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15). How often I have declared the same, teetering on despair in the face of the immeasurable depths of the suffering of humankind, as well as my own small sufferings.
Advent is the season of Deus absconditus. The people of God groaned for centuries, aching for the voice of God. Prophets were silenced; God was hidden. At just the right time, God broke the divine silence not with a trumpet blast but with a whisper at the margins—a fragile infant born to an impoverished, powerless woman and her betrothed. A flickering light, wrapped in brown flesh, challenged the grip of darkness.
So too now the people of God groan, wearily awaiting the second advent of the King. The world itself sighs with longing, though perhaps not understanding that for which it longs. The weight of all that is broken among us presses down, leaving us wondering how much more we can bear. Lament is the only appropriate response. Yet too often the church fails to make space for lament. Christ has died, and Christ has risen! We must rejoice! Indeed, in his death and resurrection, Jesus rebuked sin and death, declaring the kingdom of God. He is the firstfruits. What God did for Jesus, God will do for us all. But not yet. The kingdom is not yet here in its fullness. Though old creation is passing away, we still experience its effects. Hope that does not look sin and death in the eye is no hope at all.
Advent is the season of honest hope, and Fleming Rutledge says that Advent always begins in the dark. It begins in the shadows of our suffering, of our longing for God to rip open the heavens and come down once again to save us. Advent begins with the question, Will God keep God’s promises?
Each year, I wrestle our heavy, wooden Advent calendar out of a box in the basement and fill it with candy for my children. Each morning of the Advent season, before they gobble down the sweet, they stand before the calendar and declare, “God keeps his promises, even if it takes a long time.” It is true. It was true for the ancient people of Israel, and it is true for us today. As we inch ever nearer to the manger, pinpricks of light become visible—pinpricks of promise. Having been truthful about all that is broken, the joy we experience as we celebrate the birth of the Savior overflows in our hearts. He has come! We are not alone! The Deliverer has broken in to redeem, restore, and liberate! Because God kept God’s promise in sending Jesus to live, die, and rise again, with radical hope we trust that God will do it again, this time once and for all.
The discipline of the season of Advent does not come naturally or automatically. Rather, it runs contrary to culture in a profound way.
The discipline of the season of Advent does not come naturally or automatically. Rather, it runs contrary to culture in a profound way. The world immerses itself in an ever-lengthening season of celebration that seems to press further and further into November—an indicator, perhaps, of how starved we are for joy. We do battle the darkness with strings of Christmas lights. We are encouraged to be kind and generous in the watery hope that a renewed commitment to the good of humankind will end wars and restore justice. However, we the church are challenged to a different practice, that resists the empty hopes of the secular season.
1. We are called to lament. Hope that does not look sin and death in the eye is no hope at all. With courage, we must be honest about all that aches within us. Not only that, we must look beyond ourselves out into a world that is wounded and weary. All is not as it should be. In the pattern of the prophets, we cry out to God at the state of things. Lament is holy, and received by God with love.
2. We are called to remember. The story of the first Advent is the story of God keeping the promise of the ages. God hears the cries of God’s people, and God responds by sending a Deliverer. God does not forget us or leave us to our own devices. God breaks into history. As we immerse ourselves in the traditional texts of Advent—the words of the prophets, the Gospels, the Psalms, and the epistles—we are reminded again and again that God always keeps God’s promises, even if it takes a long time. On this unshakable foundation, we place our trust.
3. We are called to hope. Having been honest about that which ails creation and having immersed ourselves once again in the stories of God’s faithfulness through the ages, we cannot help but hope. We do not yet see redemption in its fullness. We still bear on our bodies the marks of sin and death, yet we remember and have hope. With the prophet of Lamentations, we declare: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:21–26)
May God give us the grace to wait in hope, trusting God to keep God’s promises, even if it takes a long time.