First, a time to wait

Debates about saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” — in corners where they pop up — tend to miss a reason for holding back from any celebratory proclamation, at least for a time: It is Advent, the first season of the church year. This year it began Dec. 2, and it ends the night before Christmas.

Advent is a gift. It allows us to see the world as it is and glimpse what God wants it to be.

While the concept of Advent as a time of restraint is unfamiliar to many, some of us who grew up in congregations where it was observed were steeped in its beauty and quiet expectancy.

At least one Mennonite church tries to accommodate a variety of experience, or lack thereof, with the liturgical season. Musicians lead 15 minutes of Christmas carols before the service begins, and only Advent hymns, which speak of awaiting Jesus’ birth rather than it having already happened, during worship.

Why observe a season that can bring misunderstanding with our neighbors and even in our churches? One can end up accused of being a Grinch for declining to sing Christmas songs or wish people “Merry Christmas” until the morning of Dec. 25 (but then for 12 days).

It can be difficult to want to engage the waiting, especially when the culture around us announces the shopping holiday of Christmas immediately after Halloween. We are surrounded with exhortations to be cheerful, to believe in Santa Claus and, of course, to buy a lot of gifts and decorations.

We can find a reason to rethink what we do during December in an Advent reflection, “The Coming of Jesus in Our Midst,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor.

His words remind us that to early Christians, the Lord’s return was a day of judgment: “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”

Yet this judgment is also a showering with grace and love. It is the coming of God into our sin, suffering and grief.

During some years, or on some days, Advent longing wells up in us. Death and suffering abound. It can be hard to feel that God truly is Emmanuel, God with us.

The kingdom is not yet fully here. Brokenness is more evident in many cases during this season. Those struggling with addiction often fall back into old habits. Grief can be most painful around the holidays as we gather with family and remember those who are not there. Longest Night and Blue Christmas services name that many of us feel lonely and depressed amid the holiday cheer.

In the midst of that, Advent is a gift. It allows us to see the world as it is and glimpse what God wants it to be. We read the stories of those who expected and witnessed Christ’s coming to Earth for the first time, so that we may share in the longing for God’s reign.

When we engage such waiting for a season, we may find lessons for beyond Christmas. “Our whole life, however, is Advent — that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people are brothers and sisters,” Bonhoeffer preached.

This December, we can pause amid the hustle and bustle. We can turn off or put down reports of disagreements over which greeting to offer people on the street and in stores. We can take time to wait for Christ’s coming into our broken world.

When we do so, we can rejoice all the more in the gift of Christ’s birth, until the day when all our longing will cease and God will dwell with us here on Earth.

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This article originally appeared in the Mennonite World Review.