In the past month, I’ve had the privilege of sitting with two families as they said goodbye to their beloved, grandmother, sister, wife and friend. These women lived gorgeous lives, loving and blessing and laughing all the way, each day until they were suddenly taken from us. Funerals are terrible. But they are also beautiful. A time to grieve and reflect and honor and remember and thank. And sometimes, in the most precious of miracles, funerals are a place where deep sadness becomes hope. Maybe that is why these funerals have helped me become an Advent person. On this, the first day of Hanukkuh, a holiday that remembers when God rescued and restored Israel, miraculously multiplying meager resources, I’d like to argue that Advent is a time to admit we need help, and that this acknowledgment moves us from despair to hope.
As much as I know that binaries destroy our ability to love ourselves and others with the nuance demonstrated by God and required of us, I kinda love them. I often think of myself as reasonable, and many others as uber-biased, or at least uninformed. I often think of myself as a person loving people well, while I see selfishness in others. I often see the vulnerabilities—deficits even—in others, while I see the nobility in my own efforts, and the efficacy in my actions. These perspectives are utter bullshit, of course. I am unreasonable, uninformed, selfish, vulnerable and deficit-laden. In that way, I am human, just as you are human; we should recognize binaries as the toxic delusions that they are.
Advent is a season that knows this, although a person could be forgiven for thinking it is a thing designed for comfortable people living in cozy homes, not for people who desperately need to be rescued. Many of us have sanitized not just the birth of Christ, but His own stated reason for coming. The truth is that Mary and Joseph were very poor, and very alone, and very far from comfortable people having thoughtful conversations in important places. The truth is that Mary was very pregnant, they were very young, and they were so desperate for rest that they accepted an offer to sleep in a barn. The truth is that she could have died delivering Him, and it was not at all clear in that moment that this was the protected and predestined moment designed to save the world. Joseph probably felt the same sense of helplessness and pride that most partners feel when their wives are entering the ring of fire that produces precious life. It was probably terrible. And it was probably beautiful too.
I so often act as if Jesus came, angels sang, sheep and cows and horses were super not-terrifying, and the king of the universe became a human. I add to that misunderstanding of the historical narrative the blasphemy that God sent His Son so that comfortable, American evangelicals could be super clear about who God doesn’t approve of. That the Messiah came so that awesome self-sufficient people could have awesome quiet times, or so awesome people could attribute to God their remarkable ability to hoard wealth. When we read the early stories in Luke and Matthew, we know that this understanding of Advent is a deep misunderstanding.
If we look at the prophecies that predict God’s advent, it becomes clear that the Messiah comes for those who live in darkness, for the burdened and oppressed, for the grieving and captured. He comes to bring light and ease and comfort and freedom for them. He comes for those who are ignored, marginalized and abused by the systems that benefit me.
When we sanitize the Christmas story and the life Christ lived, it is not just hurtful for those whose vulnerabilities define them to the world. That outlook also incentivizes the rest of us to act like we are not vulnerable, not in need of rescue; as if we regularly embody our best selves, and our moments of need (stressed, screaming, frantic, cussing, harried, insomniacal gluttons who just want to rest) are few and far between. But this is not who I am.
I very much need rescuing, from myself and for myself. I need to believe in a God who allows me to be a mess, and deeply loved. I need to believe in a God who comes after me with rest and healing when I pretend I need neither. An honest look at Advent begs us to remember the way of Christ—from the beginning—is the way of broken, obscure people who long for recognition and rescue. The beautiful arc of Christian doctrine tells us that Christ came once into the world to provide an eternal avenue to belonging, and that Christ will return to fully establish the earth as a place where all flourish, where all is made right, where the table is big enough for everyone. In the meantime, followers of Christ are tasked with joining the child born unto us in His work of justice and righteousness; we live to establish a world where the dignity of every person is assumed, where vulnerabilities are met with compassion, and the grace we all live under is obvious.
In Handel’s Messiah, nestled in the middle of the greatest chorus ever written, lives the line, “The Kingdom of this world, is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and of His Christ.” This world, this beautiful-ugly place, has been redeemed, is being redeemed and will be fully redeemed by Christ so that all of us will belong. Margins will not exist, and people will not hide in shadows. It seems to me that people who know Jesus have a choice this Advent: Will we continue to live as if we neither need nor know the Messiah described in scripture, or will we get to work—vulnerabilities exposed—building the Kingdom of Christ this world is surely becoming?
Funerals offer us the unique chance to celebrate a well-lived life. The chance to make meaning out of our attempt to live with others. The chance to recognize the best in another. The chance to collectively acknowledge that we are all barreling toward the end of ourselves. The chance to acknowledge we need each other to flourish, and that caring about each other actually matters. Perhaps Advent offers us a similar chance to remember our own deficits, to thank God for coming toward us when we are needy, and to align our actions with God’s approach to humanity. Advent offers us a chance to hope. If we are not moving toward hurting people with that hope, we are not following the Messiah.