By Emily Rader
I grew up in a household that celebrated Christmas in a religious sense. Dad read Luke 2 aloud on Christmas Eve. Mum hung an extra stocking embroidered with the name “Jesus” as a reminder of his presence and centrality in our home. Our favorite holiday decoration was our nativity set that was more like Noah’s Ark meets the Christmas story: featuring Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, as well as veritable herds of little plastic animals that we named and created stories for (eventually, we had to purchase a second stable in order to house them all). For us, Christmas was about tradition and family and warmth and togetherness and Baby Jesus. It wasn’t until I was an adult, however, that I learned about Advent.
Observing Advent has now become the most anticipated part of the holiday season for me. While the Western world has largely bought into a Christmas season that is characterized by glitz and glamour, twinkling lights and wrapped gifts, holiday parties and busyness, Advent – a word that simply means “coming” – offers a different way to participate.
And a different way is desperately needed. There is a terrible divide between the cheerful Christmas traditions many of us grew up with and the harsh realities faced by so many in our world. For many of our homeless neighbors, Christmas is just another day; furthermore, they’re likely not dreaming of a white Christmas, as cold, snowy nights in Denver literally threaten their lives. Many of our refugee brothers and sisters struggle to afford food for their children, much less obtain a Christmas tree or presents or hang lights around their apartment. And where do the warmth and holiday joy and hustle and bustle fit in with the cries of families whose future remains uncertain in Tijuana or the millions starving to death in Yemen due to conflicts they never asked for?
To be clear: Christmas parties are wonderful; my husband and I are buying and decorating a tree this year, and I love wrapping the gifts we give to our loved ones. I blare Christmas music and make cookies with the best of them, and I think fondly of the simple religious rhythms that my siblings and I enjoyed during this time of year. These traditions are not bad; but they can easily construct a bubble – a bubble that separates those of us with privilege from the marginalized, the poor, and the disenfranchised.
I am honored to spend every week working with newly arrived refugee families in the East Colfax neighborhood of Aurora. As I have anchored my professional life alongside those who currently live on the periphery of mainstream society, I have found it more and more necessary to examine my faith practice and belief structure to assess what might ring true to my newcomer brothers and sisters. I have experienced both a personal longing to deepen my understanding of the spiritual meaningfulness of this time of year and a growing desire to locate universal truths that are woven into the Christmas story and that resonate with people from all walks of life.
And this is where the practice of Advent draws its greatest strength and power. Think of the themes that characterize this season. There is the longing for fulfillment that emerges as we recognize that hope, joy, peace, and love are often not expressed in our lives or in our world. The flickering light of the candle in the darkness, symbolic of hope quietly standing against despair. The waiting – the seemingly endless waiting – with bated breath and quickening pulses as we engage with this liminal space, the now-and-the-not-yet existing somehow within the same moment. This waiting is even reflected within the familiar rhythm of the seasons, as we in the northern hemisphere experience the deepening of darkness every day while marching closer and closer to the longest night of the year. Sometimes it becomes difficult to hope that this process will be reversed and that light will again begin to push back against the long night.
And it is within this nexus of longing, inner ache, and deep desire for wholeness, connection, warmth, acceptance, and love that I sense we can locate kinship with all of humanity. It is the message of Immanuel that reverberates within the soul of every person: God with us. God as friend, God as companion, God with skin.
Advent reminds us that even though not all is well and right with us or within this world, there is still reason to hope. Advent reminds us that in the darkness and in the waiting and in the seasons of not now and not yet, the promise of birth and resurrection is already being nurtured. Advent reminds us that we are in a universe with a God who freely chose to participate with us in all the beauty and the tragedy of our existence, who doesn’t shy away from our humanity but embraced it within himself. Advent reminds us that it is good to be human, invites us into a sweeping narrative infused with meaning and grace, and challenges us to live into greater hope, joy, peace, and love with ourselves and with those who are so often forgotten or discarded.
This is the “thrill of hope” for a weary world – a cosmic thrill that all of humanity can feel quiver in the very center of their souls. This is a message that is wide enough to include pain and brokenness and incompleteness, but still hints at the promise of wholeness, whispers of the coming of grace and spaciousness, and begins to gently illuminate a mysterious arc of redemption.
May we feel this thrill in our own souls throughout this season and beyond – one which sparks our light to shine brighter, helps us recognize the light emanating from those around us, and draws us closer to the God of light and grace and peace who is with us.
About the Author
Emily Rader works at the African Community Center in Aurora with resettled refugee youth and lives in Edgewater with her husband James. When given the opportunity, she’ll likely be playing in the mountains with her camera, reading one of the six or seven books she’s currently in the middle of, or planning a road trip to a new national park.
Follow her on Instagram: @emilyfirebrand