Advent has eluded me this year. I forgot to pick up my favorite Advent book from on hold at the library, and they’ve probably sent it back by now. I didn’t buy new Advent candles, since we’re on one income now, and that means that two of my purple candles are pitifully nubby. I have prayed the collects about once each, and we sang a verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in class each day, but the key was a bit more ambitious than I am, so I ended up just mouthing most of the words.
Advent has often eluded me in the past as well, although not in so obvious a way. Advent, the season of longing, has been for me more a season of celebrating while paying lip service to longing. I am not well suited to Advent; I love December, and the first snow makes me feel giddy, and I never really want to fast or wait or long. That’s what Lent is for, and I do so love Lent, so somber and ascetic and long. Besides, I’m always a little baffled about how to observe Advent in American culture; it’s reminds me England before they settled on one date for Easter: feasting and fasting in the same household.
Still, in recent years I have dutifully prayed the collects, tried to save Christmas hymns for Christmas, read Advent devotionals, attended Advent small groups, and all the rest. Sometimes there are breakthroughs. In a small group in Phoenix, Philip and I were paired with mostly senior citizens who talked about hope and how they were looking forward to death and to heaven, because they were wearying of this life. I had no earthly idea what that was like, being 24 and hale and hearty. I wisely kept my mouth shut and listened, understanding that these people understood something—a big thing—that I didn’t. They could hold the deep sadness and the deep joy together in one moment. They had the cosmic vision that collapses time; they felt the “not yet” already.
It’s been a difficult Advent in other ways at well. I went to a prayer service for the Peshawar school attack at the seminary, and I started crying the moment I walked in the door. My more stoic Dutch classmates have better self-control than I do, so my genuine grief was marred by my own ugly self-consciousness. I hate thinking about myself at a time like that. So I felt guilty in addition to sad.
And the racial unrest in the United States has hovered over my days. There have been many tears, because I hate, hate, hate the thought that we have brothers and sisters who feel like second-class citizens. I cried before even leaving the house one morning. I almost didn’t write that, because it is embarrassing (I cry easily and a lot), but then again, it simply is not; what’s embarrassing is crying because I can’t have as many clothes as I want or because I’m not as successful as my friends or because we have enough money but not a lot of extra money.
Anyway, I’ve been following everything and reading everything, which then seemed to me to be decidedly not enough. I kept having this fear that I would be ninety years old and regret that I only had strongly held opinions and nothing more. I found on Facebook a small vigil at the Rosa Parks statue in downtown Grand Rapids, and so I made Philip take me to buy candles and then drive me there. I tend to back out of unknown or unpredictable events, and so I needed someone steadfast, someone who wouldn’t turn the car around.
I was crying too soon again, before we even got there, and I told Philip he was going to have to take our candles while I waited in the car, because sometimes I cry so much in situations like these that people think there’s something actually wrong with me. Philip agreed, because he is a saint, and because he knew that this was something I needed to do, or do vicariously. But somehow I pulled it together, and we agreed that I could walk with him to the vigil as far as I could make it, and somehow I made it all the way there.
We didn’t stay very long, but we went. And I did cry some, and I was embarrassed and self-conscious again, but at least we went. Philip lit a different kind of candle, not a nubby purple candle, but tall white candles in jars. But the question was the same as it ever is in Advent: How long, O Lord?