The Advent season has begun.
For my family, that means driving around town to look at Christmas lights, watching television specials like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. We’ll burn logs in the fireplace and my wife will make hot chocolate on the stove top. Chances are, we’ll sing songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells more times than we can count. If the past is any indicator, my son will imagine sci-fi fantasy battles while listening to Christmas Eve/Sarajevo by Trans Siberian Orchestra, and my wife and I will discuss why Baby, It’s Cold Outside is the most unsettling holiday song of all time.
Our town has special traditions as well. Every year we have a light parade that ends in a tree lighting at City Hall. The parade has been rained out the last few years, so our newest city tradition is cancelling the parade. One day this month, carolers from the Community Chorale will stroll around Old Town singing on street corners and in diners.
One neighborhood in town decorates their homes with the 12 Days of Christmas and every year our family drives down the street singing the song at the top of our lungs. We rarely make it through without mixing up verses. It doesn’t matter. The only line we really care about is, “Five Golden Rings!” which we sing at the top of our lungs. In another neighborhood there is a gentleman who dresses up as Santa Claus and greets children from a wooden sleigh in his front yard. He’s being doing this for almost thirty years. I visited him as a child, and now I take my own kids to see him.
All in all, the month leading up to Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. It is a season filled with warmth and anticipation.
Of course, there is another side to the season. Advent, at its core, is a time of waiting. If Christmas is a day to celebrate the birth of light into the world, Advent is a time to recognize that we are in darkness and in need of the light. To understand the joy of Christmas, we have to recognize the deep brokenness that makes Christmas necessary.
A quick look at the news is enough to make us all feel uncertain and fearful, in desperate need of light and healing.
Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached often on this subject.
“The Celebration of Advent is possible to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” (Bonhoeffer, from a sermon delivered Dec. 2, 1928, from the book Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons).
This is the contradiction at the heart of the holiday. We are caught in a state of limbo. We have hope and cheer, because we know the light is coming. We sense confusion and despair because we can see the darkness and uncertainty all around us.
I am reminded of my friends Bob and Liz.
Every year they have decorate their front yard with a brilliant miasma of Christmas lights and trains. Their house has become an institution in town. For weeks, cars can be seen up and down their street as people drive by to look at the display. Many park and get out to take a closer look. Most nights, Bob and Liz are sitting out front to greet their visitors, chatting about the trains, the lights, and treating total strangers like lifelong friends.
About a year ago, Bob was diagnosed with cancer.
The months since that initial diagnosis have been a roller coaster of ups and downs, successes and frustrations. Anyone who has ever been affected by cancer knows what this is like. There’s a perpetual feeling of “one step forward and two steps back,”of the hope associated with treatment and the uncertainty that comes from knowing that success is never guaranteed. On top of the psychological tension is the physical exhaustion and pain that comes from treatment.
With all of this happening, everyone would understand if the family decided to skip the trains and lights. The process typically takes days. It involves building wooden platforms for trains, stringing the lights, and arranging dozens of hand painted sets for the trains to travel through. The other side of the yard is typically covered with a Nativity scene and piles of packages listing the “true gifts” of Christmas, things like Joy and Peace. It is a labor intensive process.
Still, Bob refuses to be stopped. A few days ago he let friends and neighbors know that cancer was slowing him down, but that he was determined to complete the display again. A day or so later, we drove by his house and the lights were glowing again, inviting friends and strangers alike to come and experience a little bit of holiday cheer.
In a way, I think Bob and Liz are living the Advent story, surrounded by darkness but waiting for the light. They inspire me by their willingness to push through the dark, holding tight to the hope for something greater. In the process, they help bring the light to others.
May we follow their example, walking on through the darkness with faith that the light is coming.