Advent. The word means “coming.” For me, the word also holds all the anticipation and longing and preparation for the One who is coming. And the surprises of the way He comes.
I always look forward to Advent—the melodies of Handel’s Messiah, the mirrored surface of the red and gold baubles turning hundreds of little white lights into thousands. The hope that swells as I remember all over again the mystery of a love deep enough to come down and step into my flesh. The candy cane chocolate fudge crackle ice cream which has nothing to do with Jesus’ coming in a manger but somehow still seems a fitting celebration for the arrival of a King.
I always look forward to Advent. And mid-way through, I often find myself wondering why. It seems, for me, that there’s often discomfort in this month. One year, darkness and fear accompanied the unexpected need to look for a new home and the prolonged search for anything suitable. More often it’s the grief of feeling like the noise and bustle of the season is swallowing up the closeness that I want. It starts early. With Black Friday emails pressing for attention, reminding us of everything we need to satisfy our longings, we forget that the only true saving happened on another Friday when for three hours the world went black.
Sometimes even the selection of Advent devotionals sitting on my shelf and pouring into my inbox feels like pressure. I simply want to be still, to come closer, to walk the road with Mary, to kneel at the manger with the shepherds. I want to hear myself, too, called "highly favored,” to feel Jesus’ life moving in me. Sometimes the longing is so deep I think I’d settle for being a fly on the wall, or the donkey who carried Mary who carried Jesus. I just want to be there, somehow, with Him.
One year not too long ago this tension that I often feel in Advent began to make sense. I’d gone to talk with the friend who helps me listen feeling like I was missing Advent. I wasn’t feeling the joy or the hope that I wanted and expected, only painful longing. But as we talked, she helped me see: I wasn’t missing Advent at all! God’s coming just looked different than I’d been expecting. The longing was a healthy, holy discontent, a sign of God at work in me, stretching out space in me for the One whose life grows in each of us who are His.
Turns out God has come differently in each of the Advent seasons I remember.
In the winter of house hunting, God gave himself in a friend who went with me to look at apartments and another who packed when I couldn’t, and in a song I heard my brother sing to his children at bedtime.
In my little village in Afghanistan, a woman on a donkey became for me a vivid image that God was there, the holy family once again part of the pilgrim train walking to Bethlehem as Jesus waited, carried and curled in the darkness but present and coming nonetheless.
Why am I surprised that God comes to me differently each year? Of course the Creator who shapes each snowflake, each fingerprint, each personality with its own unique beauty won’t settle for less when it comes to His own ongoing drawing close to His beloved children. The creativity of his coming is part of the gift.
When we were children, Dad hid our main gift and wrote clues which we had to follow to find the gift. I’m sure the gifts themselves were lovely and I enjoyed them immensely at the time, but of the gifts waiting for me all those years, I only remember one: the playhouse Dad and Mom built for us under the stairs. What I do remember is the pondering and deciphering, the running from room to room testing out whether we’d rightly understood the clue, the sense of lovedness that someone had put that much effort not just into choosing or making a gift but into the creativity and fun of giving it and helping us find our way to it. The gift wasn’t just waiting at the end of the hunt; it was in the fun and suspense of searching for it together. Inherent in the search was the promise that the ones giving the gift loved us, that whatever was waiting for us at the end would be good, and that there would be fun and togetherness in enjoying the final gift just as there was fun and togetherness in searching for it.
How might this season be different if I approached Advent as a treasure hunt in which God is not only the infinite gift waiting for me at the end, but also the One writing the clues and following me from room to room, eyes sparkling with shared delight as He says, "Colder, colder . . . now you're getting warmer. . . "? What if I entered this season remembering that Advent is not just about Jesus' past coming or his future coming but his present coming, bringing the gift of Himself and His creativity and freedom and wholeness into each moment of each day? Can I be open to the surprise of Him coming in whatever way He wants to offer Himself to me this year, knowing that He is good and what He gives will, ultimately, be good?