Every December, it surprises me. Meaning, the juxtaposition of “the most wonderful time of the year” with the reality of how far I am from being able to fully embrace the joy proclaimed to me in every Christmas song and story and glittering decoration. I know I’m not alone in this. For I hear your stories – maybe not yours specifically, but in sitting with multiple stories of suffering and disappointment and hope deferred throughout almost a decade of counseling and a few decades more of friendship and family relationships, I have a fairly good sense of the ways life breaks us.
And for some reason, I find myself each Advent/Christmas season battling to find the hope that surrounds me like no other time of year. I struggle because at the deepest part of who I am, I know that Jesus’ coming as a baby changed everything for the better (while I also see so much that doesn’t fit with a redeemed world). I find deep comfort that his incarnation – God with us – was a literal game-changer for the human race. That Jesus was “born to set Thy people free/from our sins and fears release us/let us find our rest in Thee.” That I am to “fall on [my] knees/O hear, the angels voices/O night divine/O night when Christ was born.” And I crumble inside with the best of you at the emotion of it all – of God being made like us, like a tiny baby, utterly vulnerable to the ones he created.
But then I begin to get angry and sad. For if Jesus was born to set His people free, why on earth are we so chained up to others’ expectations and our own inward voices of shame? And why do we Christians hurt each other in the church when we are all simply trying to love one another the best we know how? Why do “Christian” politicians infuriate the culture-at-large with offers to pray in the wake of tragedy and apparently no (or minimal) actions behind these prayers? Why do news headlines daily proclaim a new form of terror?
And to bring it home and make it more personal: why do I have friends still struggling with infertility?
Friends grieving parents taken too soon?
Friends who have suffered unspeakable tragedies of abuse when they were children who could not protect themselves?
Why are friends stuck in marriages that feel lifeless? (Or why are there friends who are newly divorced despite months/years of trying to reconcile?)
Why does cancer still strike in the most unexpected of ways and times to friends in the prime of their life/ministry?
And if I dare to be courageously honest, I have a few questions of my own. Like how did I get to be so battle-weary and exhausted when I thought I was fighting for the gospel of justice, truth, beauty, and light in the name of Jesus, in the strength of his grace, and for the sake of his glory?
Why does every recent December feel depressing, as a time when I am more likely to feel the weight of the world’s sorrows instead of the hope of the Savior’s joy?
Why does Christmas seem to come up short from how I remember it as a child?
I am beginning to realize anew that the only answer to these weighty, angst-filled questions is in trying to hold in my feeble hands the glittering mess of Advent.
It’s not unlike the abundant blue glitter that one of my 5-year-old daughters sprinkled with abandon around her room earlier this week. There was literally a path of blue sparkle that looked like a rug placed on our white (!) carpet. A glittering path that led to their mini-Christmas tree. As I vacuumed it up, I surprised myself by beginning to laugh instead of growing more angry and frustrated. I laughed because it was beautiful. Any of you who have ever had the *privilege* of vacuuming up large quantities of glitter know exactly what I’m talking about. It glitters and sparkles and changes in the light, and as I vacuumed clean white paths through the blue, the vacuum cleaner began to sparkle, too. (Because it has a see-through compartment.)
And that’s when it came to me.
This is a metaphor for Advent’s tension between the beauty that will be (which began to break through in the incarnational mystery of Jesus) and the mess that we continue to make with this beauty.
These broken places of grief, betrayal, loss, and deferred hope – they are real and they are tragic in an exponentially greater way than a 5-year-old glitter tantrum (oh – did I leave that part out? The reason that she created such a display was out of anger that she was in time out – it was a mess intended to annoy me.).
But this I cling to – in hope against hope – that the mess twinkles, sparkles, glitters in the light of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree that became our salvation as it became a cross. This tragedy of the tiny babe grown up and offered up willingly as the most tragic of sacrifices for the most unworthy of offenders. You and me.
Ann Voskamp says it well in her Advent devotional:
The Cross stands as the epitome of evil. And God takes the greatest evil ever known to humanity and turns it into the greatest Gift you have ever known. … If God can transfigure the greatest evil into the greatest Gift, then He intends to turn whatever you’re experiencing now into a gift. You cannot be undone. Somewhere, Advent can storm and howl. And the world robed for Christmas can spin on. You, there on the edge, whispering it, defiant through the torn places: “All is grace.”