When Advent Fails
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, they came each one from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite; and they made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and comfort him. When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great. (Job 2:11-13)
Back in the 90s, my church decided to produce a book of Advent devotions. The lady putting it together thought I was “artsy,” so she asked me to design the cover. I came up with something I thought was pretty cool. I submitted a simple black and white picture of a pregnant woman’s torso in profile. This sparked all kinds of hand-wringing at the church which culminated in my pastor/boss telling me the design was in poor taste (the woman was clothed, by the way). The publisher lady replaced my sort-of artsy design with a clip-art drawing of the Three Wisemen, who of course have nothing to do with Advent.
Pregnancy is a wonderful image of Advent. It works on so many levels. Mary was obviously pregnant with Jesus. Moreover, time itself was, in a sense, pregnant with the Son of God. (Galatians 4:4-5) Today we might say that the cosmos is again pregnant, waiting eagerly for the children of God to come forth (Romans 8:19) when Christ returns. Advent, like pregnancy, is a waiting for something marvelous.
There is a young couple whom I love; they live in another city. A few years ago, I guided them through their premarital counseling and officiated at their wedding. Just last week the woman gave birth to twin sons. They were quite premature and both passed away not long after being delivered. Their parents got to hold them for just a few precious minutes before they were gone, gone until the Resurrection at the Last Day.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, there are six million pregnancies every year in the United States. Of these, approximately one-third end in pregnancy loss. More than half of those are due to abortion, but 800,000 are the result of miscarriage and similar issues. Everyone knows someone who has lost a child in pregnancy, and you might well be one of them.
What happens when excitement and expectation ends in disappointment and calamity? What do you do when your Advent ends not in Christmas but in Good Friday? Expectations are not always fulfilled, hope is sometimes dashed. Sometimes this results in loss of life, as happened to my friends. Sometimes the loss is not as tragic, but no less real. Relationships end poorly, jobs fall through, dreams are not realized.
When someone is in the middle of their suffering, it is easy for an outsider to say “God is still with them.” That is true, and it is the message of Advent. Christ is with the suffering, the broken, the mourning. He knows what it means to endure horrific evil, and so he is the ultimate source of comfort and healing to the hurting.
At the same time, suffering does not always move quickly to hope. Sometimes hope is put on hold and mourning drags on. For those who are in the middle of their pain, God must be mediated in the silent affection of other human beings. Christ is incarnate in the tender compassion of the friend who says “I don’t understand it either” as he bursts into tears. The Christian who can set aside her need to control, her desire to “make it better,” and can sit in the awful pain of her friend becomes Jesus to that friend.
For those of you who are suffering right now, let me say a couple of things. Your pain is real and it has meaning. I encourage you to feel what you feel, to be as angry and sad and overwhelmed as you are. In the middle of your pain, please know that there is still hope for you because of Christ. I pray you will reveal your suffering to other people who can sit with you in it. I hope you will find some hope in this Advent, and in the Christ who has not given up on you.