by Carrie Cates, MDiv Student, Seattle School of Theology & Psychology
I have a proposal: I think we should practice Advent for nine months of the year before we celebrate Christmas.
This four-weeks-before-Christmas thing with its purple candles is all well and good, I suppose, but if Advent is meant to be a season of waiting and anticipation, then I don’t think it’s doing us any favors towards increasing our capacity for wonder, awe, or celebration by cramming our tidy observations of the miracle of the virgin birth and incarnation, and the changing of the course of history, into what many of us find to be the busiest, most stressful time of the year.
We have a problem, and the problem is that we know too much. It’s all down pat; our narrative is too predictable. We know Jesus is going to be born on December 25th, just like last year, and we know he’s going to grow up, do his ministry, die, and then rise again before Daylight Savings Time even ends.
This predictability runs entirely counter to the actual narrative of Advent. That story is not at all about knowing how things turn out. That story is utterly unexpected—the waited for, the unknown, the terrible weight of hope and the fear of hope’s undoing.
In that story, a teenage girl unexpectedly gets pregnant and her fiancé doesn’t want her anymore. In that story, this girl holds a secret inside her for nine months while her ankles swell and her back aches. Still, Scripture tells us, she celebrates. Still, she ponders. She praises. And, we can imagine, she fears deeply while also longing for the birth of the child within her. And when the birth does come (it takes her just a few short chapters from our perspective, but it took her some 40 weeks), it’s not in a birthing suite; it’s in a barn. There is hay and blood, tears and pain, and then there is the squalling of a newborn in the quiet of the night, the hope of the world finally born. And this is just the beginning of the story.
This narrative is at the heart of my 9-month-Advent proposal. None of this story is tidy. It is fraught with color, sensation, hope, mystery, dread, and excitement; and it takes a long, long time to play out.
If our four weeks at Christmas-time aren’t telling us this story, then maybe we need forty. Because if all this season is just about Christmas trees and suiting up for our holiday fights and sugar binging and kinda-sorta thinking about Jesus, well, then God give us the grace to get through it. But, more than that, God give us the spirit of a true Advent. God give us Mary’s longing and Mary’s hope and Mary’s restlessness in the waiting for what is not yet, but what we desperately hope will be. God, grow hope so great within us that we ache with it. God, make us bearers of Christ, pregnant with good news. And God, send your Spirit to us to brood over the waiting dark where we do not yet see the light of Christ.
If you don’t decide to take nine months for Advent this year, that’s okay. But what I pray for you and for all of us is that, whatever its length, we have an Advent where we forget what we know about the Christmas story so that it can come really, truly alive in us again. I pray for wonder, I pray for hope, and I pray for light in the midst of darkness. Let it be so.
But if you do decide to go for the full forty weeks this Advent, then please invite me to your Christmas celebration of Jesus’ birth, which should take place—wait for it—Labor Day weekend.