The agonizing waiting began around the first of December, as I remember it.
The Christmas catalogues would arrive in the mail - huge, heavy magazines from Sears, JC Penny, Montgomery Wards and the like.
Sitting down with a pen and paper, my siblings and I would meticulously plan our Christmas wish lists.
We would quickly flip through the housewares section of the catalogue, and skip through the clothing section, because who really needs clothes for Christmas? Eventually we found the pages that laid out before us the offerings of the year, from Lego sets to nerf footballs, dolls to remote controlled cars.
We would spend hours poring through these catalogues, bending the top corners of the page to mark something interesting. Writing down our wishes, erasing and revising as we found more and more exciting things.
These lists would eventually be whittled down to the top contenders, written in a letter, and taken to the magical tree at the local mall, where a little owl and an elf would then deliver our letters to Santa Claus at the North Pole.
It was then that the waiting got intense.
In his book, Secrets in the Dark, Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner, recalls a similar kind of waiting from his childhood, one which many of us too might remember. He remembers how his grandparents would send him an Advent calendar each year, the kind that was made of cardboard and paper, and had little doors or windows that were to be opened each day. They would reveal a scene or an image each day, leading up to the stable and the baby that would appear on December 24th. It creates a sense of anticipation and waiting.
Buecher remembers, “Christmas morning we would drive from wherever we were living at the time into New York City, where our grandparents lived, and along with my father’s two brothers and their families we would start waiting all over again in the dim hallway of our grandparents’ apartment with a Tiffany lamp on a round table and the curtained glass doors to the living room closed until finally our grandfather appeared ringing a handbell like a Salvation Army Santa Claus and opened them onto unutterable magic.”
Writing many years after these events, Buechner remembers that there was darkness in that room as well light. Not long after this Christmas morning, his father committed suicide, his grandfather died of a broken heart (as much as anything else), and a few years after that, his father’s youngest brother also committed suicide.
This time of the year is full of both darkness and light. The darkness is the reality that our world and our lives are not how God intended them to be. They are not always what we had hoped they would be. The happy carols and the sweet sugar cookies sometimes bring a smile to our faces, but sometimes they bring an awareness of what is no longer.
So it is that advent begins in the dark, and it begins with a call for help. In the midst of the ring of the cash registers and the clicks of the online shopping, advent begins with these ancient words: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” We are languishing, so remember us, O God, and come to our help.
Christian communities around the world and through the centuries begin the season of advent with these words from Isaiah. The words were originally written in a time of great tragedy, around 400 BC. The people of God were in captivity—their nation had been overrun by foreign armies, their cities were ruined, their homes destroyed, and their farmlands wasted.
During this time, the words of God that we read this morning were spoken through a poet, a prophet. The words are a call for help. They are an acknowledgment that life is not always wonderful and that happiness cannot be forced.
At the same time, they are words of hope.
The great French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician René Descartes once wrote an intriguing reflection on hope and fear.
He argues that hope and fear have a common origin and are a complementary pair: “Hope is a disposition of the soul to persuade itself that what it desires will come to pass …. And fear is another disposition of the soul, which persuades it that the thing will not come to pass. And it is to be noted that, although these two passions are contrary, one may nonetheless have them both together.” Hope and Fear.
In fact, neither one can completely replace the other. For when our hope becomes too strong, such that it removes all fear, it is no longer hope. It becomes false confidence and leads to complacency, for we no longer feel that passion, that strong desire that hope creates deep within us, a desire that moves us and pushes us forward. Thus hope and fear are found together.
So the season of advent is one of hope and of fear, of darkness and of light, for we know that the darkness is here, and pretending that it does not exist is self-deception. But also know that the light has come and will come again. This is our hope. This is what stirs within us. This is what keeps us moving forward when the darkness presses in. This is what gives us joy; it is what brings us happiness; it is what gives us peace.
Like the Christians of ages past, we light these advent candles, hoping and trusting and praying that the light will come and shatter the darkness.
We trust that this time will come.
But until that day comes … we wait. We hope. We watch. We pray.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.