Advent Isn't Pretty

By Meryl Herr

November 23, 2023

Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders

Advent isn’t pretty.

The churches that celebrate Advent may outfit their pulpits, altars, and chancels in shades of purple or deep blue. Their pastors and priests may wear stoles that remind us of the season. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we may light candles as we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” But no matter how we dress it up, Advent isn’t pretty.

“Advent Begins in the Dark”

During Advent of 1996, Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge told the congregation at Saint John’s Church in Salisbury, Connecticut, “Advent begins in the dark.” She taught that we can’t truly experience the good news of Christmas until we’ve sat with the bleak and sobering truth of Advent—that the world is broken and we groan under the weight of it all, longing for someone to come and make everything right. “Advent,” she writes, “is designed to show that the meaning of Christmas is diminished to the vanishing point if we are not willing to take a fearless inventory of the darkness.”

I don’t know about you, but taking an “inventory of the darkness” does not sound fun. It’s not neat and tidy, and it’s certainly not becoming of someone trying to embody “the Christmas spirit.” But I think Rutledge is on to something. We can’t really experience the fullness of God-made-man, the coming of Christ to the weary world until we’ve taken a good, hard look at why he came in the first place.

The miracle of Christmas is that God took on flesh to save us from the snare of sin—not only the sin within us but also the sin around us and the sin that came before us. The world needed a human being to shed his blood and make atonement for the sins of humankind. The world also needed someone to conquer bodily death and give us hope that one day, all manner of things will be well. Jesus came into the world to do precisely that. St. Athanasius wrote,

[God] took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery—lest the creature should perish and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for naught—He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours.

That’s what Christmas is all about. But getting there isn’t pretty.

We can’t really experience the fullness of God-made-man, the coming of Christ to the weary world until we’ve taken a good, hard look at why he came in the first place.

Being able to soak in the wonder of Christmas requires that we sit a while in the mud of our misery. Before Jesus began his earthly ministry, his cousin John the Baptist preached in the wilderness quoting Isaiah the prophet who said of the first Advent,

“Prepare the way for the Lord,

make straight paths for him.” (Isaiah 40:3, NRSV)

But John prefaced that quote saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 3:2, NRSV). Preparing for the coming of Jesus requires a good long look at our brokenness.

It can be easy to overlook or dial down the volume of the pain and suffering within and around us. Deliverables and deadlines can drown out the cries of our hearts. The frenzy of end-of-year fundraising and next-year forecasting can distract us from our need to slow down. If we’re not careful, work can anesthetize us, making us numb from what we deeply need to feel.

Others among us face the pain and suffering head-on. We know what it’s like to look toward December knowing that we have to lay off our entire department. We carry the hurts and hopes of those entrusted to our care because we seek to lead with compassion. And yet we, too, need to pause long enough to take a good, hard look—“to take a fearless inventory of the darkness.”

If we’re not careful, work can anesthetize us, making us numb from what we deeply need to feel.

Holding Our Brokenness

Two biblical practices help us hold the full scope of the brokenness we feel and experience. The first is confession. It’s the practice of taking a careful look at our sin, acknowledging it, and expressing our need for salvation. John the Apostle wrote about this practice in his first letter:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:5-10, NRSV).

The Bible also shows examples of communal confession. We see an example of this in Nehemiah 9 when the people of God living in the land after the Babylonian exile acknowledged not only their sins but the sins of their ancestors who had also been disobedient to God. The Good News that is bound up with the wonder of Christmas is that we have full forgiveness for our sins in Jesus Christ: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1b-2). Without the coming of Jesus in bodily form to die for our sins, we would be without peace because we could never be reconciled to God.

The second practice that can hold the full scope of sin and brokenness is lament. Fuller professor Soong-Chan Rah describes lament this way:

Laments are prayers of petition arising out of need. But lament is not simply the presentation of a list of complaints, nor merely the expression of sadness over difficult circumstances. Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament.

Lament is big enough to hold the hurts of the world while at the same time pointing us to the hope of the world. Each prayer of lament takes a turn from all that is wrong to the One who will one day return to make everything right. That hope is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ which we celebrate at Easter. But we can’t get there without going through Christmas. Jesus had to be born into this world in human form to give us the hope that one day he will raise and restore our bodies, too.

Worshiping Jesus

Both confession and lament are forms of worship. These practices examine the weight of the world in light of God’s mercy and grace. They invite us to look to Jesus—the one who came into the world and the one who now sits at the right hand of the Father, ruling the world in righteousness and faithfulness.

Lament is big enough to hold the hurts of the world while at the same time pointing us to the hope of the world.

One of my favorite Christmas carols has room for all the hurt and hope we carry with us in Advent. In the first verse of “O, Holy Night,” we sing

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appeared, and the soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.’

Throughout Advent we prepare our hearts for that “new and glorious morn” we celebrate on Christmas Day. Let us confess our sins to God. Let us lament all the wrongs and yearn for them to be made right. And let us worship the Savior “who came to love, heal, and forgive.”

Banner image by Luis Alberto Sánchez Terrones on Unsplash.

Meryl Herr

Director of Research and Resources

Dr. Meryl Herr is the Director of Research and Resources at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she designs and conducts research studies that add to the understanding of what helps marketplace leaders flourish. She also oversees the team’s efforts to convert research findings into r...

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