The whole creation groans
And waits to hear that voice
That shall restore her comeliness
And make her wastes rejoice.
I could observe here the traditional Christian pastime of complaining how we tend to skip over Advent and move straight from turkey feasts to tinsel and shopping and cookies with sprinkles. But you know what? Go right ahead. You go on and hang your wreaths and be ye merry. I’ll just settle into a gloomy Advent mood and be sad by myself.
Is lonely melancholy a fitting mood for Advent? Part of the genius of the church year is the way the seasonal cycle gathers our various spiritual moods, distributing them across a structure of story, reflection, and song. We are supposed to feel triumphant at Easter, on fire for the Lord at Pentecost, repentant during Lent. In this way, the liturgical year wisely validates and even forms the faithful in a range of feeling—we learn orthopathy as well as orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
I propose that Advent is the time when we are allowed—even encouraged—to be honest about our disappointment, our sadness, our cynicism. We soberly mark the vast distance between God’s redemptive purposes, the promises and visions held out for us to cherish, and the state of the world as it is. And we ask why. What are you waiting for, God? How long?
For me, it’s the waste of it all. That’s what irks me. People do stupid, wicked things, like invade Ukraine. What a waste of lives, what a waste of resources! Think of all the effort expended on hand-wringing and diplomacy and all-out fighting trying to respond to this wickedness—all that energy that could have been spent moving the world toward peace and justice. Or people do ignorant things, like tossing baseless accusations at teachers and arguing about banning books. Or people who are both foolish and insanely powerful leave wreckage wherever they go, like a certain billionaire who has decided to break Twitter and unleash the snarling hyenas of misinformation. Or people whose hearts are so clouded with power and wealth they endanger us all by protecting fossil fuel interests when we could be making desperately needed shifts to a more sustainable way of life. Which means that many millions of people are compelled to spend their time and energy and love fighting against what people should have the decency not to do in the first place. It’s all such a waste.
And then there’s religious infighting. People turning the zeal of their righteousness into scapegoating, petty coups, campaigns to control others. Go ahead and add up all the hours spent on attending hastily called meetings and drawing up documents and holding listening sessions and lying awake and anxious in the middle of the night. What a waste.
Or bring it close to home. The way siblings spend the few precious hours when the whole family is gathered bickering and reheating stale conflicts. Or those inexplicable griefs: young people spending their twenties battling depression rather than fulfilling their many potentials, grandparents who die too early of cancer and leave their grandchildren bereft, enormously gifted people stymied by poverty or racism or family dysfunction. So much waste.
All the conflicts and troubles and miseries of history. Sometimes it seems as if it’s all waste, wall to wall and beginning to end. I don’t know how God puts up with it. Why do you let it go on and on and on, God? Poignance? Free will? Some kind of vast, cosmic aesthetic that only you can perceive?
So here in Advent, we take a moment to wake up, look around, and grieve that we live in the wasteland.
We are about to hear again the stories of angels and shepherds, a pondering young woman and a miraculous baby. The inbreaking of the Word of God into this weary cosmos. And we are supposed to be reassured. “We bring good news of great joy,” the angels declare, but of course it’s hard to trust good news. We’ve been around long enough to know that good news always comes with footnotes, asterisks, expiration dates. Wouldn’t it be amazing to receive good news that actually sticks the landing and won’t be compromised or reversed or eroded by the next bad thing?
As if in response to that objection, Advent offers a preventive assurance: God has come, and yes, OK, fair enough, we are still in the wasteland. But Emmanuel will come again, and then it will all be over. No more crying, no more tears, no more battles petty or sweeping, no more waste. Be ready.
Christmas will come, and Epiphany, and the rest, and back to Advent again. And again. The older I get and the more these liturgical cycles unspool through my life with their repeated stories and intoned promises and familiar songs, the more abstract that end-time vision becomes. Thank you for that vision of Christ’s triumphant return, truly, but chances are good I will live out my life in the waiting. So that’s what feels tangible to me now, that in-between.
I suppose, then, I have to settle in. I suppose I have to say that God is present in the waste, that God works through the waste. That maybe the waste is not all waste to God, but compost. God the recycler, God the salvager. Maybe my lonely melancholy brews, after all, from a holy longing. But that longing need not be lonely; it can become clarifying, revealing, binding—a communion.
Advent has a way of clearing out the sentiment and nonsense and easy answers so that we can perceive a more severe truth. That expert on wastelands, T.S. Eliot, understood what it felt like to persevere amid mysteries and sorrows none of us can ever fully understand. This line—not from “The Wasteland” but from his Four Quartets—sums up Eliot’s conclusion: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Here in this Advent wasteland, all I can do is keep trying. Keep looking for signs of God’s continued inbreaking that flare all around me, for those pillars of fire and smoke. I can find the voices crying out in the wilderness, the people who are far more patient with never-ending battles than I am, and I can persevere alongside them, sharing our gifts both of strength and weariness. I can look to the resilience of life itself, to the patience of trees dormant for winter but preparing their spring buds. I can receive the daily bread, just enough, and try to trust that more will come tomorrow.
There will be time later to dwell in the abundance of God, in the joy of feasting and goodness. For now I wait, and long, and try, and look for signs.
Epigraph from “Come, Then, Lord Jesus, Come” by Horatius Bonar.