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The mad rush to Christmas has begun. The signs are all around us: blaring Christmas carols, colorful blinking lights, trees and mistletoe, cookies galore, and the forty-seventh showing of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (you know . . . the Claymation version with Burl Ives from 1964. It was my favorite as a kid).
Underneath or perhaps embedded within all this cultural (and ecclesial) fanfare are the reminders of loved ones no longer with us, of family and friends stretched across many miles (if not continents), and of inexplicable and inescapable tragedies near and far.
The signs of Advent are all around us. The contradictions or paradoxes we bear in our own cultural activities point toward it. For Advent is a time of waiting for release from darkness and distress, from pain and perplexity; it is a time of feeling our bondage and despair, and of hoping against hope.
We usually leave lament to Lent (if we lament at all in the church). But in fact, Advent may lead us more readily to lament, precisely because our culture promises such cheery experiences in this season. “It is the most wonderful time of the year.” To which we might retort, in the words of Amy Poehler and Seth Myers (Saturday Night Live): “REALLY?!” Or if we’re a bit less despairing, we might at least say, “Well, yes and no.”
Of all the Psalms (the prayerbook of the Bible), one-third is lament psalms. In and through these, we are invited to express our anger and anguish authentically to God. We are invited to accuse God of abandoning us, to complain, and to plead for help, release, and the fulfillment of our most precious longings. In lament, the deepest conflicts of our souls are brought out into the open and are borne by Christ and his body.
One of my favorite Christmas shows in adulthood has been the Seinfeld Christmas episode in which Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer are introduced to Festivus, the Constanza’s version of Christmas. Instead of a fir tree, there’s an aluminum pole; instead of turkey or ham, meatloaf; instead of presents, a humiliating wrestling match (“feats of strength”); and instead of Christmas cheer, complaints about one another (“the airing of grievances”).
Lament is like a Christian airing of grievances . . . directed at God. It is like a Christian feat of strength, a wrestling with God until we receive a blessing. For in lament, we refuse to let go of our deepest longings and desires even as we fear that we will drown in grief. As such, lament is an act of profound faith, real faith, honest faith. It is a wrestling and waiting for new birth, a disposition completely fitting for Advent.