Advent feels more present this year. Maybe that’s because the last twelve months have been so turbulent, a maelstrom of political upheaval and violence, wars and rumours of wars. Rediscovering Advent as a source of hope is less a liturgical duty and more a survival strategy.
This isn’t just about hope for the future. That’s important – without a vision, the people perish, right? – but as we look forward to a better world, we can’t delude ourselves that this is all about an Age To Come. That’s a privileged position, a luxury that most people can’t afford. The hope of that future world needs to present now. Our Advent waiting, our “Merry Christmas!” shibboleths are meaningless unless they have something to say in the soup kitchen, the women’s shelter, the refugee camp, the Twitter timeline, the public toilet with no disability provision, those abused and oppressed by the Church itself (Navajo writer Mark Charles wrote about this today).
Advent is a time when the Church thinks about incarnation – the coming of Jesus into the world, yes, but also the Kingdom of God incarnated into the world. And while that’s eschatological, it’s also a nuts-and-bolts reality. We have to carry hope into a world that’s waiting for it, because if we don’t we’re just another bunch of talking heads.
So we remember those who need hope right now. Those in Syria and Yemen, Those who slept in doorways last night as the snow and temperatures fell. Those who’ve been raped or assaulted and who are now being victimised all over again. The children being abused. Those in prison, those in debt, those invisible. Those crushed in the gears of bureaucracy. Those mansplained and churchsplained, those who’ve had their job or their futures taken away, those fighting addictions or ISIS or cancer or their very own demons.
The picture that accompanies this post is Jose y Maria by comic book artist Everett Patterson. It puts the journey to Bethlehem into a contemporary context of neon lights and seedy motels and payphones, a young couple out in the rain with nowhere to go. I’ve written about this piece before, but it always reminds me of the immediacy of Advent and Christmas. The things we pray and sing and shout about aren’t just for the past and the future, they’re also part of the present. The Advent hope of Mary’s song isn’t just a nice subject for a few carols and a kid’s play, it’s the hope by which we can hack the system.
I need to hold on to that. I need to hold on to it because honestly? I’m scared. I have two sons with autism and I’m scared that the world and its rules and its austerity and prejudice will grind them down. I’m scared because of growing authoritarianism and the feeling that plenty of people are dancing with joy into dark places. I’m scared because I’m suffering from depression and anxiety. I’m scared because there are churches who see pedophilia as a political compromise. I’m scared because it all feels hopeless, I’m scared because I don’t know what to do about it all and I’m worn down.
Maybe that’s why Advent feels more present. Maybe it’s because I need it to be, in these days when Christmas feels right on top of us but too far away. There’s a strange sort of grace in being able to remember that all this hope in which I try to believe was rooted in a land under military occupation, in a world where one of the central figures narrowly avoided being stoned, where a government decided to kill kids because it was politically expedient. Past and present collide and the future feels distant, but still we have to live in hope because hope’s something we can cling on to with bloodied fingernails and divine stubbornness.
So today we remember we are one, and that we have to look after each other because that’s our calling, that’s our mission, that’s our incarnation. And we draw in hope and love and justice images of humanity that others would seek to erase, we make the most of the waiting and echo our glimpses of a world yet to come.