The tradition of Advent is a tradition of hope. Its roots are steeped in a deep longing, an expectation, a faith that all of this will be set right. But the days of Advent can be dark because they force us to feel the brokenness of this world. It sounds obvious, but in order to have hope there needs to be something better or more true to hope for. While Christmas is all about joy to the world! Advent is all O come, O come Emmanuel. That song, so haunting and searching, captures the yearning for Messiah of ancient Israel. And we continue to yearn because Messiah has come, yet things still seem so dark.
This year gave us a lot of dark to wrestle with. Unicef declared 2014 one of the worst years on record for the world’s children http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/09/world/unicef-calls-2014-one-of-worst-years-on-record-for-worlds-children.html?_r=0. Thousands orphaned by the ebola epidemic, an ongoing civil war and refugee crisis in Syria, the horrific violence of Islamic State, conflict between Israel and Palestine, children massacred while at school in Pakistan… it seemed like bad news followed bad news. The world has always been messy, of course, but this year it felt like there was no break from the mess. I have to be honest, with all of this on my mind, it’s been hard for me to feel much Christmas spirit. The lights on the houses and the North Pole display at the mall just all seem to have a sour note—the decorations have the feel of putting lipstick on a pig. Even though it’s only two days from Christmas, my heart is still in Advent, grieving with and for those who have faced incomprehensible darkness.
Advent is all about hope. That someday this is going to make sense, that someday things will be made right. But in the face of all the dark in life, the tedium of day to day life, dreams deferred, personal tragedy, international conflict and the many other hardships we witness, the word hope feels a little too vague, abstract, even fluffy. How can the same word we use to describe that we want spaghetti tonight for dinner be the same word to express that maybe this is the year I’ll hear back from one of the interviews or maybe this is the year we’ll get pregnant. Hope—can such a small word stand up to so much expectation?
In the Bible there’s a lot of talk about trees. Trees can represent two things: life and judgment. I don’t really know why they represent such seemingly different things. Maybe it’s telling us something about how the way we live our lives is important. There are trees of knowledge, trees of life, trees for shade, and fig trees that get cursed. At the very end of the Bible, there’s a picture of heaven. It says that at the center of Heaven is a tree, sustained by a river, a river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God. John writes that the leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations. I think it’s a beautiful picture that God, when all is said and done, will be sustaining from God’s very self exactly what we need to be healed. I imagine people from every nation, from every walk of life, approaching this tree and binding up each other’s wounds. I find hope in knowing that God cares about these things and will provide.
But what about the days until then?
There is also a lot of talk about seeds in the Bible. Seeds that are sown, seeds that thrive or are choked by weeds, seeds that must someday be harvested. Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds. This seed might be easy to overlook, but if only you’ll plant it it will grow and someday become a large tree. Jesus tells them that someday birds will perch in the shade of this tree. They will find rest, they will build nests, have babies and teach them how to fly.
Hope is not naive, and it doesn't absolve us from working to sow love and justice in the world. In fact, it’s just the opposite. In the face of seemingly intractable oppression and never ending violence, we are called to be seeds—the tiniest, most foolish seeds. Seeds who believe that someday, just by being planted, will grow to become trees that offer healing and rest. I don’t think it’s an error or coincidence that the Kingdom of God starts as a seed and ends as a tree. And it’s so classic for Jesus to choose the smallest and most insignificant kind of seed to start with. But every day that we, with all the hope we can muster, go out into this dark world and sow seeds of light, we are working with God to restore shalom, to make all things new.
Jocelyn Peirce works with our Lexington campus Middle School ministry.