“Advent begins in the dark,” declares Fleming Rutledge.
If you are new to Restoration and haven’t been with us for a full church year I’m going to have to re-introduce myself for this season. I’m Amy, the Advent Grinch, thought I don’t relish the title. Every liturgical church has a few liturgical rule-followers who seem driven to regulate the fun out of the more somber seasons of the church year. The limitations of Lent are a bit easier for everyone to accept but Advent just cuts against the grain of our Christmas-loving culture.
In a sense, it is always Advent and it is always Christmas. Until Jesus comes again, each day we live in anticipation of his arrival. And we live in celebration of the incarnation, delighting that Jesus made his home with us, forever identifying with us in our humanity and making a way for our redemption. As we prayed this past Sunday, “Jesus, be with us while we wait for you.” Redemptive time folds in on itself.
Still I need the full narrative of the church year playing out in chronological order. I need the story to begin in Advent with darkness and despair, with death and judgment hanging over us and no help to be found. I have to sit a few weeks with the depth of my need in order to begin to recognize the bright light that pierces the darkness when Jesus comes to us at Christmas. We had nothing — no hope for the world to be any different and no chance that we would find mercy instead of judgment — except for the promise that a Savior would come.
Keeping Advent isn’t meant to be a joyless legalism but it does require some thoughtful cultural resistance. The “holly jolly” commercial Christmas that lasts from Thanksgiving until the wrapping paper is stuffed into a trash bag on December 25 offers the promise of escapism into nostalgia and the small delights of twinkle lights, gifts, and holiday parties. But the deeply holy Christmas, the mystery of the Incarnation, is the inbreaking of light into darkness and the beginning of our salvation.
I cannot truly appreciate the cosmic truth that the Light of Life has come without staring into the darkness first. And so I navigate two Christmases each year. There is the commercial one that asks me to juggle preschool nativity plays, white elephant gift exchanges, and ugly sweater parties with the ticking countdown of remaining shopping days. And then there is the other Christmas that is still a promise waiting to be fulfilled. Into this darkness Jesus will come and bringing justice and offering righteousness. He come with the power and authority to make the whole world right, though not because of anything we have done.
I struggle through the demands to make Christmas magical for my kids by taking them to a dozen spectacular holiday events. Sometimes I feel like collapsing as the countdown clock for Christmas preparations runs out. But when Restoration gathers for Christmas Eve worship and we enact the narrative of Christ our Light entering into the darkness I am awash with joy. I usually drive home with tears on my cheeks because once again Jesus has not left us in the darkness, he has kept his promise and come to us. If we aren’t watching and waiting in Advent, it can be difficult to recognize what we see by the brilliant light of the Incarnation that throws everything into sharp contrast. We start in darkness, but we look for the Light!