The wilderness of Advent
It’s a familiar feeling, the terror of change, of the unknown. God asks us to redirect our lives and we are overcome with being overwhelmed. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as Advent comes upon us once again. Amidst the holiday celebrations is the pervasive fear of what Christmas means to me. And I know that sounds slightly ridiculous. Christmas is a point of resounding joy in the church, we sing of Christ’s birth and recall the moment God becomes incarnate. It’s a beautiful image. But with birth comes responsibility and fear. We, like Mary, are embarking on a new reality of God with us. Songwriter Brandi Carlile sums this up beautifully in her song “The Mother” – “Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind, you’re tethered to another and you’re worried all the time.”
And as Christ enters the world, we as Christians are no longer alone inside our mind. Dietrich Bonhoeffer repeats over and over again that to be a Christian is to be conformed to Christ, to live in the present moment to expect God to call us into action.[i] And that is terrifying. It is a new space, a wilderness full of promise but entirely uncharted. I worry sometimes that this revelation becomes lost amidst the merriment of the season. To be fair, I am often guilty of this. I trade the tree and tinsel for the deeper responsibility given to me to be conformed to Christ and guided by an ethic rooted in God’s command on my life. Like the ancient Israelites, I don’t want the worry and fear of something greater than what I’ve known. I want the comfortable past.
But to choose that path negates Advent. It negates the story of God, the overarching narrative of the Bible that God leads us into new spaces for our betterment. My favorite verse in Scripture immediately follows the outburst of the Israelites. Moses calls out to them, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14 NIV). Not a promise that our own actions save us, but that God saves us, even when we are paralyzed in our fear. This is the promise of Advent. We should rightly worry about what happens when we embrace the mystery of God incarnate, God as a helpless baby and a capricious toddler, a surly teenager, a grown man who will die on the cross. We hold our breath, as I’m sure Mary did, to understand the gift and the challenge in front of us to nurture this new life.
And yet, God meets us where we are and beckons us into the wilderness. May Advent become a space to recognize more fully that what happens on Christmas Day is both beautiful and terrifying because it expects something from us beyond shouts of joy.