Why Celebrate Advent?
This Sunday is the first of four Advent Sundays, culminating in a month-long Christian preparation for the celebration of Jesus’s birth. Not everyone celebrates Christmas, and among those who do, not everyone celebrates this time of Advent, of anticipation and waiting and hope.
In his article “Seven Reasons to Celebrate Advent,” Ryan Shelton highlights spiritual gifts we can gain when we honor this time of preparation.  For instance, he tells us, according to Scripture, God’s plan for Christ’s life and death began at least thousands of years before Mary ever gave birth to him, and God’s plan is still coming to fruition today. We know this because Christ has not yet returned to Earth. Therefore, Advent connects us to the longing of generations of saints who patiently trusted God’s words were true, even if they would never see the baby themselves, or even if they died before Christ came back. They believed God was faithful and true to His word, and that was enough.
We All Matter
This idea of God’s plan spanning thousands of years behind us, and perhaps thousands more ahead of us, helps us remember we alone are not the focus of God’s effort or energy. We’re just a tiny blip on the cosmic screen. It’s the whole that matters most, not the individual.
Today I spoke for the second time with a man who has been in and out of institutions and homelessness. He was quite self-effacing. Probably he has never felt truly loved, though perhaps he understands how the vastness of time and space dwarfs our importance. In any event, during our first conversation, he repeatedly told me not to bother with him, not to take so much time, that he didn’t matter. He joked and scolded and bristled. Our dialogue felt awkward and disjointed. Nonetheless, I stayed with him for quite a while, attempting in that way to show him that everyone matters. Even he matters.
During the next visit, he told me I was wrong. Some people matter, he admitted, but most don’t. Definitely not everyone.
Maybe I am wrong. I can’t prove it’s true. Nor can I prove there’s a God out there who cares about us. Some days, I don’t think there is. Logically, I can’t wrap my mind around God or eternal life, and I certainly can’t understand why people believe that the death of Jesus could cause a ripple in the universe big enough to end the power of death. How is that sensible?
The Hope of God
On other days though, I remind myself that sensible rationality is not the only way to find truth. Those are the days when I experience something uncanny. A coincidence occurs that feels too sacred to be unintended, or I’ll sense the presence of something beyond my comprehension. Then I find it hard not to believe in something greater and bolder and wiser than anything humans could ever understand or aspire to. On such days, I feel the touch of what I call God, a God who cares about me. Not me alone, but me specifically. This same God, I am certain, cares about the hospitalized man who doesn’t believe he matters.
According to Shelton, we learn from Advent to slow down, to be patient, and to cry in lamentation against the brokenness of our world. Yet the greatest thing we can learn from Advent, he tells us, is hope. By focusing on the coming of Jesus, on the waiting and the watching, we learn to have faith in the promises God made to each and every one of us, especially to those who are lonely and hurting. Advent tells the story of a God who sacrificed Himself in the form of a child to bring love, light, and life into a world filled with horror and misery.
Perhaps the man I was talking to could find a way to believe the message of Advent. Maybe he could even believe that message was for him, not just for others.
Light in the Darkness
In a way, that is the most important message of Christianity, that all of us matter. Advent reminds us of that. The season declares that, though the Northern hemisphere can be harsh and bleak in December, good things will come. Though life may be depressing, it will not always be that way. Jesus came once, and he will come again.
In his book The New Jerusalem, G.K. Chesteron wrote, “Anyone thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous, but a winter fire for the unfortunate.” 
This is the hope, that some day God’s loving and peaceful kingdom will reign on Earth, and all will be Eden once again. Eden not just for the happy, or the wealthy, or the privileged, but for everyone. Jesus came to save, not the rich, but the poor.
What If You Don’t Celebrate Christmas?
Or so the story goes.
Probably, Jesus wasn’t born in December. From clues in the Bible, we can figure he was born in the fall, perhaps September, maybe October.  Were the church fathers trying to co-opt pagan festivals by substituting them with Christian ones? Perhaps. Still, does it matter? The Christmas season lifts our spirits just as do other religious festivals, like Yule or Hanukkah.
Not everyone celebrates Christmas, of course, just as not everyone celebrates Advent. Most of us have probably never spent a month waiting, preparing, and hoping, at least not as a community, and not with the ritual and purpose of Advent. Some people, even if Christian believers, dislike Christmas. The holiday can be full of the reminders of lost loved ones and forsaken customs. Instead of joy, Christmas can bring pain and loneliness.
Religion that Comforts and Heals
Yet if we suffer heartache, regardless of when, perhaps we one of the “unfortunate” Chesterton is talking about. Christianity is a religion not for the wealthy and self-satisfied, but for those who ache and struggle through life. When we have wealth and power enough to cope with crises, our need for a god is less. We can be our own gods. Yet when our hearts burn with shame and powerlessness, we need something to hold onto, to keep us going. The Christian god fills that need for many people, and Advent is a time to remember the Christ they love, to long for His presence, and to hope for His return while they are still alive.
Christianity is not the only religion that comforts, and spiritual practices like meditation or Tai Chi can connect us to a healing sense of oneness. There are many ways to sustain our relationship with that power of love and justice, of healing and hope.
Sometimes, though, in our effort to feel better, to believe that we matter, we reach for false gods and idols. Addiction is like that, as is the lure of money and status, the rush of adrenaline, or even the rigidity of self-righteousness. These appear to soothe us, to buttress our egos, to excite us, but that doesn’t last long. In the end, these false gods steal our souls and take away our hope.
Love, Resurrection, and Hope
The story of Advent says there is a god and that god was born and died will come again. It’s a story that has been told in one form or other, in myth and folk tale, ever since humans have been human. Perhaps even before.
Yes, the Christian story is, in some ways, unique. Every faith has its specificity. Yet many religions preach a message of love and tenderness. They speak of a god or master who sees our pain and cares enough to lift us up, who helps us cope when sadness and failure break our spirits. Thus, Advent is not the only time to claim a faith, to remember that suffering is not all there is, to feel that we matter, to believe and wait and hope. Still, Advent is one time to do these things.
During Advent, we remember that in some way, Jesus Christ did live and die and rise from the dead. Love and resurrection are, on some level, true and right and real.
In faith and fondness,
- Shelton, Ryan, “Seven Reasons to Celebrate Advent,” Desiring God, November 30, 2015, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/seven-reasons-to-celebrate-advent, accessed December 2, 2017.
- Chesteron, G. K., The New Jerusalem, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920, chapter 5.
- See “When Was Jesus Born?,” Bibleinfo.com, http://www.bibleinfo.com/en/questions/when-was-jesus-born, accessed December 2, 2017.
Copyright © 2017 Barbara E. Stevens