This post comes to us from Nate Mills:

If you’re anything like me, the only Christmas movie you’ll be watching this holiday season is the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Somehow, I just can’t bring myself to watch anything else this year. It’d be easy enough to justify this feeling to myself as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, and surely there is some truth in that. The 25-minute TV special seems to be the only game in town to acknowledge that arriving at the good news of Christmas Day is not necessarily a matter of jingling-all-the-way. Maybe, like me, you, too, have a Scrooge streak, and when Hallmark’s holiday happiness is foisted upon you, it serves only to inflame your inner cynic.

That is all true of me, but that’s not really the reason I can’t watch television this December. The truth is I’m just sad. And I am not sure I want to be cheered up right now.

This time of year, and this year of all years, feels to me like the exact right time to be sad. The church calendar revolves around the reenactment of the two great redemptive events of Christmas and Easter, both of which are preceded by seasons of penitence, preparation, and expectation. I’ve heard plenty of sermons in my life emphasizing the necessity of passing through Good Friday in order to reach Easter, and rightly so. I only wish I’d heard half as many sermons reminding me that to get to Christmas we have to trudge through Advent.

The melancholic note of Advent has always appealed to me, if only because it provides an alternative to the Pollyanna cheer of holiday entertainment. This year, however, I feel that I have a lot more company than usual. The entire world is going through a form of reverse exile as nations continue to lockdown and restrict movement in order to mitigate the damages of a pandemic. This season, our best laid plans have come to naught, and in the rarest of all occasions in our digital age, enforced idleness risks exhausting even our distractions. When our endless feeds cease to lull our attention, no one can avoid the fact that we stand in need of deliverance. Neither riches nor cunning can deliver us from the stress inherent in the hopeful expectation of the vaccine, and in that resignation lies a sentiment not that dissimilar from what Christians have reenacted through Advent for two millennia.

The season of Advent is characterized by the felt tension between expectation and unfulfilled hope. Through it we are meant to enter into and identify with the experience of the people of Israel as they awaited their messiah in the long shadows of centuries of God’s silence. By this act of imaginative participation, we in turn examine our own hearts. We prepare ourselves in the hope that just as Israel ached in anticipation of Christ’s first coming, so should we anticipate his return. But what meaning would hope have if it were not responding to the awareness of something absent? “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” writes the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Romans. Hope itself, even though it resides between Faith and Love among the theological virtues, is contingent upon a future that cannot be guaranteed by any human effort.

However precarious it may be, to reduce hope to wishful thinking would be a grave error. In the middle of the last century, during another historical period of great expectation, the French playwright Gabriel Marcel wrote that “there can, strictly speaking, be no hope except when the temptation to despair exists. Hope is the act by which this temptation is actively or victoriously overcome.” Hope, real hope, is the opposite of a blind and passive optimism. Hope is the treasure of the soul, won by hard experience, that waits in expectancy for deliverance.

To be hopeful is in some sense to also be sad, sad that we long presently for what is not within our reach. It is for this reason that we ought not to bypass Advent. In order to experience the elation of Christmas Day, we have also to abide in the longing that precedes it.

Advent gives us permission to feel the ache we suppress in polite company, the ache that comes from the knowledge that even as Christ has come, and dwells in us presently, he has not yet reconciled all things to himself. And, as long as this is the case, we will live with the sadness of a hope deferred. So let yourself be sad. Feel it. Give your ache a habitation and a name. This holiday season I don’t want to be cheered up. I’m sad that, because of international borders, I won’t be seeing my loved ones this Christmas. I’m sad that I am helpless to do anything that might make this situation better.

It is in this impasse of my own life, 2000 years removed from the nativity scene, that Israel’s Hope meets me. The despair which this virus has revealed in our hearts will not be cured by a vaccine. Our involuntary Advent has revealed the underlying condition of our hearts, which even the normalcy promised by vaccination can only serve as a distraction from, and not a cure for. The true sickness unto death requires a different remedy.

Luckily, that remedy has been made known. The light which scatters the darkness before the path of Advent is not the pinnacle of progressive enlightenment or an inoculation. It is something else entirely. It is the presence of the one who proclaims, “I am the light of the world.”

In this Advent season, I find my strength and consolation in the hope fulfilled on Christmas Day: The presence of Emmanuel, God with us in our present darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

At Christmas, the hope of everlasting life finally arrived, and “that life was the light of men.” For the Christian, even the denial of all earthly hopes does not render our hope vain, because our hope is never contained in the world. The story of Advent reminds us of that greater hope. “Comfort my people, says your God.” Christmas brings tidings of comfort and joy because we know whom we have believed, and his presence remains with us even now. In this season, we remember that even the darkness is as light to him. Be sad this Advent. Whistle a tune in the dark while we all await the light. Thanks be to God, we do know what Advent is all about.