Text: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Advent. It’s not an easy time of year. In fact, it’s the most difficult season for many of us. How many of us can spend this season without thinking of our loved ones whom we can’t reach anymore or thinking of somebody who has lost their loved ones? In this season even our most precious memories hurt.
Advent means arrival. God is arriving, and we are waiting for God. We are invited to make room in our hearts for God to be born once again. It is here in this season that our relationship with God is described most beautifully and most intimately: Immanuel, God with us. God in us, and we in God welcome each other, and rejoice the oneness together. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, and nothing can prevent God from reaching out to us. The story reminds us that even the empty manger is good enough for the Christ to be born. We get to hear the same story every year. It’s a beautiful story.
But doesn’t the most familiar story feel the most foreign to us sometimes? We don’t want to leave the Nativity story just a story. We have such a deep longing to be part of the story that changed everything. Our faith tells us that if it happened to ordinary people in the most unlikely place, it must happen to us right where we are. We don’t come here just to sympathize with the holy family. We come here with the same degree of hope, if not more, as Mary’s, Joseph’s and the shepherds’. So, what about us? What about our needs and prayers? Why is it that our emptiness we feel deep inside, the hollow in our lives doesn’t seem to be filled up? We cry out to God only to hear the echo from the depth of the souls of countless suffering children of God around the world.
Week by week, as our anticipation gets higher, our pain gets deeper. Advent fails our expectation, leaving us in the most uncomfortable place, the place of mourning, grieving and longing. I wish there is a fast forward button so we can skip this whole process of waiting. If God has a plan and a purpose for each of us, wouldn’t it be nice if we start from the end instead of from the beginning or in the middle?
Ministers are no exception. I remember an experienced minister telling me that the Christmas season always stressed her out. I didn’t understand her words then, but now I get that. Most ministers feel this dilemma most keenly during the Christmas season. Ministers are expected to preach hope, peace, joy and love during this special season. It doesn’t matter whether they are hopeful, peaceful, joyful and beloved in their own lives; they have no choice but to celebrate Christmas, and to help their congregations celebrate the birth of Christ with a joy that might be more exhausting than uplifting.
I never believed in seasonal affective disorder, also called winter depression. I thought I am not affected by the weather as much as the average Canadians no matter how wet it is like the west coast, or how cold it is like here in Manitoba. I thought the crisp winter air with the bright sunshine would be better than the grey and gloomy wet winter. Now I admit that they both are equally affective. This is my fourth winter in Winnipeg, and I find myself checking the weather more often than ever before, as I have to make a conscious choice whether I go outside or stay. Sometimes it is not knowing that makes us braver. What the weather taught me, especially the long and harsh winter, is that it is knowing that makes me stay where I am.
That realization leads me on to the real issue I have to face in my life. In my life I have known enough pain that leads to suffering. That doesn’t make me stronger nor does it make me a better or even more compassionate person. I used to think that my own suffering opens myself to the suffering of others. I thought suffering was a channel to deeper communication with God and with one another. Although I don’t disagree with the belief, I discover something unresolved or unfinished within myself. I still have a tendency to avoid my real issue by shifting my focus on other things however good my intention might be.
Advent fails as long as we shift our focus on something else other than our very selves, vulnerable and desperate. Advent fails as long as we let the most familiar yet still foreign story dominate our space as if we are not part of the story, as if it can happen regardless of us. Advent fails as long as we don’t address the real issues we face in our lives: depression, loneliness and anxiety.
There is no should or should not when it comes to Advent. The only thing required of us is to tell the truth: telling the truth about the trouble in the world and in ourselves. That is perhaps the hardest thing we can do. That is, however, the way for us to prepare the way of God, and to make the path straight. That’s what Isaiah said, “Cry out”, and that’s what John the baptizer said, “Repent and be forgiven.”
A couple of weeks ago, I went for a walk in the park after sunset. It was unusual, because I had walked in the park only in the daytime. It was getting darker but I decided to go for a walk hoping there would be enough light to be able to see my way. It was a beautiful evening, and the park was peaceful as always. I was especially fascinated at how the snow reflected the light illuminating my way. There coexisted light and darkness embracing each other. There was no separation between the two. The light within the darkness, and the darkness within the light encircled the same space. The unity of light and darkness broke through our age old binary concept of light and darkness. Like the psalmist said in Psalm 139:12, “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” To me, that was the image of Advent: even in the places we want to avoid there can be enough hope, enough peace, enough joy and enough love that will carry us. Advent can be the most difficult season, but it invites us to be authentically ourselves. For the emptiness we feel deep inside and the hollow in our lives are good enough for the Christ to be born once again.