It is the first Sunday of Advent and I sat in church.
I sat in that pew with my baby bouncing on my lap to hear hope insisted upon. Maybe hope needs to come that way. Maybe it will only come by our stubborn determination or it’ll only be something that dances through our daydreams, but it felt forced.
It felt like hope was being poured over me, like it was drowning me. It wouldn’t dare let me catch my breath as it made itself known in the ministries of this particular church. I love this church. It’s the first church in so many moves that I’ve felt at home. I feel like I belong and this is a strange new world for this preacher and military spouse. It is good. It might even feel like hope.
But hope is not something to be named on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the stuff of possibility and imagination. It lives over there in that land of moving on and getting over. It’s the thing we are never quite sure we’ll find though we’ll fight like hell to keep believing is out there.
Hope is that kind of thing for me. Advent is that kind of place, a liminal space between what was and what is. An open expanse where there is room to dream and curse and lament and wonder. Mostly, I think it’s too short. Four Sundays is not enough though I was reminded just yesterday that historically there were six Sundays in Advent as there are in Lent. (I think that they did actually teach that to me in seminary and I managed to forget it anyway.) That same wise woman pointed out that we need this space. We can’t jump into the celebration of Christmas like our culture seems to want us to do. We can’t live in the hope because we must ask ourselves, in her words:
How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?
What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?
What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?
What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?
I sat in church and wondered if there is any hope in shaking us loose from our illusions if we go right along and start naming all those things that remind us of God’s hope. I wrote the liturgy for this Sunday. There is a piece of this liturgy, as there will be in the three weeks to follow, in which we’re asked to wonder how we are collaborating with God in realizing hope and peace. I want to live into this stuff too. I want to roll up my sleeves and do my part but there is still part of me that approaches this season asking for a break.
I grimace too. I hear my privilege in uttering these words. Hold me accountable to all of that because I think it matters as much as our white churches fail to nuance the promise that a light shines in the darkness, as if darkness can only be bad.
Still, it’s that tiny light that so many of us are holding onto. The wax is burning our fingers. The wick is getting shorter and shorter but we’re not going to put that candle down. We need it. We need that damn thing to shine maybe even brighter than it did last year. That’s what people in the pews are doing as the church enters into its new year. They’re thinking back over the past few months. They’re recounting all that has happened in the past year and gritting their teeth to face another would-be celebration where they’re told what hope looks like again.
In our American culture, that Christmas hope centers around the family. After all, it is what our economy values most. It’s why marriage in queer communities took so long to win. It’s how our entire tax system in structured. In this idealized family, all the relatives get along and want to be together. (This is actually true for my family and it’s still hard for me to be away for the holidays, even if my vocation requires me to work on those high holy days.) But, in our death-denying culture, it also assumes that there has been no loss. There’s no struggle to imagine this holiday without those that first made it magical. There’s no space for that.
It’s that space I craved this morning. To bellow with the prophets and lament with the saints. To wonder about this strange teaching where one is taken and another left. To me, that’s not the Second Coming. That’s just living with grief because grief has been redefined all over again this year.
Three years ago, I sat in another pew with blood pooling between my legs from a miscarriage. I sobbed through the expectant hope of that morning. The familiar hymns stuck in the back of my throat as they had in years past. Grief is not unfamiliar. It’s not unchartered land but it’s always changing. It’s never just the death of my mother but that loss piled on by so much more. This year, I sat there pissed off that I had to pray about another cancer diagnosis even if we don’t actually know it’s cancer yet. This time, it’s my Dad that hope is stuck on.
I don’t want to hear promises of what hope we’ve seen. I don’t need to have hope insisted upon but only for it to be named as a place we might live one day. One day, after all the cancer is gone and racism has ended. Justice hasn’t come and so I’ll still be waiting on hope.
Christmas will be when it comes, when that hope really comes.