It was a Sunday afternoon and we were shopping for some sundries at a big box store. My son and I stood in line with our hummus, asparagus, milk and raspberries. The aisles already decked for Christmas, shopping carts overflowing with groceries and soon-to-be-gifts, my boy said he wished we could just skip to Christmas and open presents. I winced. Then I realized I had done him a disservice.
“Our culture has misled you,” I said, as he leaned on the cart. “You think Christmas is about one day and many gifts. The stores have trained you well. They want you to fixate, for weeks upon weeks, on toys and electronics and high-top sneakers.” But then I said the secret out loud: “Consumerism isn’t what Christmas is about, son. Jesus didn’t come to fill your stocking.”
“Jesus came to do other things…” And before the sentence could be completed he interjected, “like topple pharaohs?” We’d been talking about modern pharaohs in recent days, the ones with a nightmarish grip over lands, labor and lives. I felt a surge of relief that he had not forgotten the narrative of our faith amid all the tinsel of the big box store or jingling bells of television commercials. “Yes, Jesus brings freedom. He frees us to be humans – not consumers.”
We shuffled forward in line as I pivoted the conversation toward an ancient tradition. I told him that while our culture rushes to the reds and greens of the holiday, the Church engages in a tradition in shades of blue. The four weeks leading up to Christmas are set aside to prepare for the arrival of Jesus. We start with Advent.
These are the four weeks that we take note of the world with all her aches and pains. We stop and look around to see where it hurts. “It hurts in Burundi right now,” he said. “And people are hurting in Paris right now. And Gaza.” People are suffering inside and out of Syria, I added. There are refugees across the world sad to leave their homes but too afraid to stay, families looking for a safe place and people to welcome them in to their country. There are people trapped in prisons for too many years and condemned to death row. “There are people hurting in Japan after that massive earthquake, mom, I saw it on student news at school.” Yes, he was getting it now.
“You see, son, Advent gives us space to see the hurts of the world. When we see the people and places that hurt, we’re reminded of what salvation will look like.” We need to be saved from greedy leaders, rescued from racism and xenophobia, delivered from too many kinds of violence that wreck communities across the globe today. Over the weeks of remembering it becomes more and more clear why the world needs a savior.
We start to find the words, I tell him. Words about what is broken; words about where healing is needed. Often we see ourselves among those hurting. Our prayers change. Instead of asking for an iphone or a new bike, we start asking for things that truly make us whole – things only Jesus can give.
Our hearts grow hungry for salvation – the kind that only Jesus can offer. We dream of freedom from nightly violence for all Burundians, fewer wars and the day when we can close every refugee camp because everyone can go home in safety. “So more food and less bullets,” he interjects. Yes, something like that, I affirm. Our imagination, informed by the real hurts of the world, hungers for a peace only God can bring. Then we are ready for the arrival of Jesus on Christmas morning.
So to the octogenarian who was craning around his heaping cart to see us, I would say that Advent is a time to consider the pain of others. There is also space to name our own hurts.
To the couple not-so-subtly ease dropping, I would say that these weeks allow us to name our brokenness but also the shape of the salvation we seek for this world.
To the perky cashier overhearing the final words of our conversation, I would say that we are a people who wait before we celebrate.
And to you, kind reader, I would say that Advent is a dimly lit space allowing our own hunger to be recalibrated. Once we can see our limping world, and even identify with the deep ache, then we can truly join the angelic chorus and welcome the Prince of Peace.
We wait in blue shadows, knowing it will shape our ability to celebrate the truth of Christmas and the arrival of the Savior of our World.
NOTE: Advent begins on Sunday, Nov. 29th.