The Weight of Advent

Speak What You Feel, Not What You Ought to Say

Ian Olson / 12.6.19

As Black Friday reaches further back in time each year, so as to even colonize the twilight hours of Thanksgiving Day, we in North America are no strangers to the porousness of time. Commercial interests can collapse chronology such that two times can overlap in a way purely linear calendar time can’t countenance; we can be within one moment of historical time while our hearts and minds are elsewhere, in an event that is long past or yet to come.

American Christians find themselves in a similar overlap of times following Thanksgiving. That very night, radio stations begin playing Christmas music, signaling that it’s time once again to begin shopping in earnest (read: excess) and assembling decorations out of storage. The holiday season descends on the nation as a month-long blanket of cozy-feels, peppermint lattes, goodwill and cheer. But this season is more than an artery that connects Black Friday to Christmas: it’s Advent, the time between the times, the time of our waiting.

And a time of trouble and darkness. The days are pronouncedly shorter; night descends earlier and colder each day. Holiday obligations loom large in our minds. The highway to Christmas is paved with fatigue and agitation. Have any of us enjoyed an entirely trouble-free beginning to the holiday season? There’s a reason, after all, therapists are in such high demand beginning in November — so many of us dread, downright dread, gathering together with the humans we have no choice but to bear blood relations to. Tensions inevitably surface, the unrequited resentments and unresolved hurts encapsulated in faces too eerily reminiscent of our own. Luxuriously set dinner tables become the battlefields on which terrible wars of attrition are fought.

Zooming out from these painful points of familial anguish, we find macro-scale events showing that no, all isn’t merry and bright: starvation in Yemen, clashes in Hong Kong, Turkish attacks on Syrian Kurds, the betrayal of those same Kurds by the United States… Controversy occupies the White House. A plague of shootings has ripped across the country. Contrary to the naïveté of that John Lennon song you’ll hear on the radio presently, war isn’t over; one suspects none of us really want it to be.

The most wonderful time of the year? Maybe not.

But you won’t hear many people saying so. We are scared of so many things, but possibly more than anything, we are scared of admitting how scared we are. And so we repeat that there’s no place like home for the holidays in spite of the raw panic that grips us as we contemplate returning home; we clock out when the evening sky looks like midnight and set out searching for the hoards of presents we feel are requisite. It affords us an illusion of control we know we don’t have. We look for an equilibrium in mania to offset the anxiety we dare not name.

But the prophetic word of Advent authorizes us to tell the truth about the world. As Edgar pronounces in the final scene of King Lear, “The weight of this sad time we must obey/ Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” John the Baptizer exemplifies this ethos: he speaks his mind, giving voice to the silent grumblings of the lower class and of God alike. He is an inconvenient note ringing out in the wilderness, embarrassing to the priestly class from which he is descended. His importunity and refusal of bland niceness is what prepares the way of the Lord. This is the face of Advent: mourning in lonely exile, crying out, “O Lord, come quickly! Vanquish the Devil and all his works!”

But even this season, when it is remembered, is all too often hijacked and sterilized, sawn off to fit a Procrustean bed of niceness. The advent wreath, a relatively novel development in the history of the church, celebrates hope, faith, joy, and peace, whereas traditionally it commemorated the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. These things are the outcomes of our works; all our trials are participations in them. Advent is more than the time of preparation for Christmas: it is the post-Nativity time given to us to contemplate the end seeded in that beginning. We look back in order to look forward. For as sure as the Lord was born to a virgin in Bethlehem, he will return to judge and restore.

As with so many other things, we sanitize what isn’t safe and therefore lose what is nutritious. Is the traditional Advent safe? No, but it is good. And that good is brought into focus by our truth-telling. Ernst Kasemann writes:

In Paul apocalyptic does not lead to enthusiasm but to an experience of the world which is ruled by horror. It is against this background that the confession of the predestined cosmocrator Christ, of libertas christiana — as an anticipation of the resurrection and the joy of conquerors — gains definition. Even when inferno threatens on all sides, the Christian is stigmatized by the lord who is present for him, and is set in παρρεσια. [1]

Who on earth looks forward to judgment? Those who tell the truth about darkness and affliction and death and decay. These are the ones who clamor for a legitimate authority to set things to right, to vindicate what was good, and true, and beautiful, and rightly denounce what was vile, and injurious, and false. But also to redeem the awful compound of both that each one of us is.

The only genuinely effective apologetic available to Christian faith is its forthright speaking (παρρεσια) about the distress and affliction that characterizes our world and our species’ pathological inability to effect lasting change to heal it. Bolstering the historical veracity of Christianity’s claims is useful, as is philosophically demonstrating its systematic coherence, but none of these things are the Sun of righteousness by which light is shone into darkness. We must tell the truth that will reverberate in every human heart searching for consolation. Every other school of thought will try to paint the world as not as bad as it seems: Christianity alone will insist, Yes, it is this bad — and yet that is not the whole story.

As in Spring, we cannot leapfrog over Lent and the crucifixion into resurrection; so here we cannot simply bypass the hurdles of death, judgment, heaven, and hell, into the happy qualities named in most Advent wreaths. Advent means waiting for the relief of judgment and renewal, and this waiting means bearing the weight of darkness and anguish. We should obey the weight of this sad time as we await the return of the King, for only in this awaiting will we lay hold of hope, faith, joy, and peace.

[1] Ernst Kasemann, trans. by David Way in The Lordship of Christ: Ernst Kasemann’s Interpretation of Paul’s Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 153.


5 responses to “The Weight of Advent”

  1. CJ says:

    beautifully written, Ian. & that Lear quote…so powerful.

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