By Rev. Kelly Dahlman-Oeth
“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The last Sunday that I preached and worshipped with people in person was the first Sunday of the Christian season of Lent, March 1st. With the little that we knew of COVID-19 at the time, I had no idea how long we would be physically separated from one another. Indeed, I was still speculating that we would not be worshipping together in person for Easter. As Easter approached, and we knew that the only way we would be celebrating the Risen Christ together would be digitally, I said several times, “Whenever we’re able to gather again safely to worship, we will celebrate Easter again!”
Our season of wandering in the Lenten COVID wilderness has stretched through the summer and is now blurring into the season of Advent. It was, as suggested in my April newsletter article, a “very long Lent.”
For those less familiar with Advent, it is celebrated on the four Sundays prior to Christmas Day. Though it initially had nothing to do with the birth of Christ, most Christians in Christendom (North America, Europe and many countries that were colonized by Christians) now celebrate it as the season of preparation for Christmas or, in some cases, a pre-Christmas extension.
As the Latin origin of the word suggest, ad = to, venire = come, the season of Advent is a season of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ. However, it was not until the Middle Ages that the season of Advent was linked not just to the return of Christ, but also to anticipating the celebration of Christ’s first coming.
So it is that we enter this Advent season, full of its “waiting and watching in the darkness,” and we do so with months of waiting in the darkness already behind us. Much of our waiting has been about a vaccine and plans for its distribution, and now we hear news of successful trials!
Doubtless, most of us are eager to celebrate. Whether celebrating the coming of a vaccine or the coming of Christmas, many of us are eager for good news. That is, indeed, what Christmas is: the good news that the Word became flesh and pitched a tent with us.
Still, while Advent may be about waiting to celebrate Christ’s coming at Christmas, it is not Christmas. Advent is the waiting in the darkness. The knowledge that a vaccine is on the horizon does not erase the pain and grief for all those whose loved ones were taken by the virus. It does not bring back businesses that closed and jobs that were lost. It does not inoculate against the anxiety of those who are living on the edge or are months behind on their rent or mortgage. While some may see the bright light on the horizon, many of us are still waiting in the darkness.
What if, instead of trying to push the darkness aside with Christmas lights and bright colored ribbons, we agreed to wait in the darkness—not to wallow in despair, but to simply wait and watch with those for whom this seemingly endless Advent of our lives will stretch beyond Christmas morning.
It has been a long nine months, and we recognize that it has been particularly painful for many. Rather than only using this time to celebrate the birth of Christ, I invite you to linger, to wait in the darkness of Advent as you are able. Linger and wait in the silence. Linger and wait as St. Paul writes, “For we know that the whole creation groans and labors in pain together until now.”
Then, after our long waiting, may Christ be born again in each of us, and in all the world on Christmas morning.
Kelly Dahlman-Oeth serves as pastor of Ronald United Methodist Church in Shoreline, Washington. This article originally appeared on the church’s blog.