Recently I visited a worship service where the celebrant of communion talked about how he feels increasingly as thought the Advent season is trying to dictate to him how he should feel. Advertisements and decorations, Christmas music and church services that all seem to scream that we should be excited, that we should be jolly and joyous and full of good cheer.
“But,” he noted, “in fact we may be feeling fragile, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Maybe our family or workplace keeps giving us the message that even though we did a good job… there was always more that could have been done.” He went on to talk about how we simply feel what we feel, and to be told that we “should” be feeling differently doesn’t help. Ours is a God who knows what it is to be tired, to be worn down and instead wants to offer us a place this Christmas season where we can come and just be. Where we are welcomed, no matter what emotional state we might find ourselves; Where we have permission to be honest about where we are on the Grinch to Cindy-Lou-Who scale. Where we don’t have to pretend to feel jolly and cheerful if that is not the spirit we have in us.
As I have heard pieces of the gospels’ Christmas stories this season, it has reminded me that there are times when we arrive at the joy prematurely. Before the angelic confirmation that a king was born, before anyone had answers about what God was up to… well, there was doubt and fear and worry and a shroudedness around the way forward. Advent is the season of preparing our hearts, but it is also where we take time to remember that things happen slow and in seasons, not all at once with confidence and clarity. Mary had nine months to worry, Joseph, those same months to doubt, the three wise men were given a task that posed a political threat to the existing king, the shepherds had no idea what these heavenly heralds might mean for them or for the future.
I don’t think that Advent and preparing our hearts means we should put on a mask of Christmas cheer. I think it means that we take time to acknowledge the truth in our own hearts. Our doubts, our fears, our pain, our worry and lack of clarity for the future. Because when we bring those into focus, we can start to see what else is at work.
This past weekend I visited my best friend in Philadelphia. It was December 13, 2014 and they were having a holiday party. But December 13, 1998 I remember arriving at the University of Pennsylvania hospital to learn that she had been in a terrible car accident and might not make it through the night. Hours spent with her family just waiting and waiting for news. I can’t help it, but my eyes brim with tears just thinking about it. And yet, seeing her this weekend, with her husband and her son, it is joy and hope beyond words that rises in the face of that memory.
Hope and joy often work in contrast to the shadow parts of life. They can grow out of them and they are often more visible when held up side by side. Healing doesn’t’ happen overnight, but looking back over a long road and realizing you are not where you once were. Christmas is light at the end of a nine-month twilight, and laughter after a long period of fear and doubt.
So for you, I hope this is a fruitful Advent season. Full of honest feelings and permission to be wherever you are. May you remember the hard times, that somehow, in that strange way that God does things, you uncover real hope and joy this Christmas.
Abbie Huff is a Presbyterian pastor serving as a missionary working with the Nyack Project in Nyack, NY.