It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
With the kids jingle belling,
And everyone telling you be of good cheer…
There’ll be parties for hosting,
Marshmallows for toasting,
And caroling out in the snow…
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
The timeless voice of Andy Williams makes this cheerful declaration every year starting (to the chagrin of some) even before the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers have been put in the refrigerator. Everything and everyone around us reinforces Williams’s message. The Christmas season is wonderful! Just look at what it brings: the holiday treats, the winter attire, the Christmas decorations, the Christmas parties, the Christmas spirit!
I think American retailers in particular would have us celebrate Christmas from October through December if they could, possibly even starting in September, if we let some Hallmark movie fanatics have their way. While I’m no Scrooge, I do find myself a bit nauseated by the sheer number of Christmas patterns on everything the eye can see, the constant smell of sugary treats in the office, and the utter campiness of some Christmas songs in every retail space. (If I have to hear “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” again….)
Though I do enjoy many of the season’s “traditional” activities, including watching The Nutcracker, eating peppermint bark, and seeing Christmas lights, I have to admit that the frenzied, almost forced excitement of the season makes me sad. It isn’t because excitement and anticipation are out of place this time of year. On the contrary, the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day, known historically as the Advent season, provide a wonderful opportunity to lean into the human experience of waiting, hoping, and longing. My sadness comes from the way so many of us use this time of year to distract ourselves from the realities of life. We watch feel-good films with happy endings, attend as many social gatherings as possible, and eagerly anticipate giving and receiving gifts on Christmas Day. There’s a humorous, socially acceptable impatience about the season too, exemplified most perfectly in the timeless “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t be Late)”:
Christmas, Christmas time is near,
Time for toys and time for cheer.
We’ve been good, but we can’t last.
Hurry Christmas, hurry fast.
Want a plane that loops the loop.
Me, I want a hula hoop.
We can hardly stand the wait.
Please Christmas, don’t be late.
I do think the culture is on to something in its attempt to bring humor, cheer, and vivid color in the season where, in the West at least, daylight and temperatures decrease. Darkness and cold can be unpleasant. Waiting for the return of light and warmth can be hard. We are instinctively drawn toward things that can distract us from the discomfort of waiting and longing, and the culture is all too ready and willing to offer us countless distractions in the name of Christmas spirit. The problem is that this kind of Christmas spirit ends with the after-Christmas sales, when the tree decorations are put away and the radio goes back to its standard rotation of Top 40 hits.
The Advent season of the Church offers a very different kind of experience from the frenetic planning and playing of culture’s Christmas season. In his book Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year, Philip H. Pfatteicher says the season of Advent “is not just climbing back into the Old Testament and attempting a make-believe waiting, pretending that the Christ has not yet come. The waiting of Advent is a real waiting, an authentic expectancy of an event that has not yet taken place, an event that still lies out there ahead of us.” Unlike the Christmas spirit the culture offers, with its instant gratification and distraction from pain, Advent, as Pfatteicher says, “is waiting, waiting for God, waiting with sometimes rising impatience, deepening frustration, and frequent disappointment. We wait, we hope, we look.”
This year, I entered the first week of Advent carrying nearly a dozen very recent stories of friends experiencing devastating loss, unfulfilled expectations, shattered dreams, and unimaginable pain. How can I tell those individuals that this is the most wonderful time of the year? How can toasted marshmallows, toys, and parties equip them for long-suffering, patience, and lasting hope? If I put myself in the shoes of my grieving friends, the constant celebration happening around me feels shallow, discordant, even delusional. In their shoes, I see ahead of me an indeterminate season of heartache and waiting—waiting for healing, for reconciliation, for a freedom from pain that may only come after death.
The words of C.S. (Jack) Lewis in the 1993 film Shadowlands ring far more true to their lived experience than the Andy Williams classic Christmas song. In the film, Lewis, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, reflects on the experience of waiting for springtime: “I’ve always found this a trying time of the year. The leaves not yet out. Mud everywhere you go. Frosty mornings gone. Sunny mornings not yet come. Give me blizzards and frozen pipes, but not this nothing time. Not this waiting room of the world.”
If we’re honest, that gray “waiting room of the world” is exactly what most of us want to avoid, not only through the trappings of Christmas spirit but also through anything that can give us temporary distraction from the realities of pain and suffering.
I’m not trying to shame the human instinct to seek relief from pain. Scripture gives us numerous examples of God’s people seeking, even begging for relief from trials and hardships. Think of the people of Israel begging for relief from their years of enslavement and brutal oppression by the Egyptians (Exodus 2:23). Think of Job begging for relief from the misery of losing his children, wealth, and physical wellbeing (Job 3). Think of the apostle Paul praying to God for relief from an unnamed torment, only to be told that he will not find relief this side of heaven (see 2 Corinthians 12:8-9). Think of Heman the Ezrahite who, in Psalm 88:8-10, describes his experience of physical suffering, mental anguish, and social isolation with raw honesty:
You have caused my companions to shun me;
You have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
My eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O LORD;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you?
Scripture shows us that it is natural to desire and pray for relief from suffering. And if suffering is real and present with us, then the culture’s solution of denial through amped up positivity and cheer will at best temporarily distract and at worst begin to deform us into fearful people who are ill-equipped to face reality. In his birth, Christ came to offer us so much more than distraction from our suffering or the suffering of the world around us.
The season of Advent gives us the opportunity to fully acknowledge the reality of brokenness and to cry out to God for relief. The words of Scripture and of the songs of Advent give us powerful language to articulate our longing for light, warmth, reconciliation, and peace. My favorite Advent hymn is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, and I can’t help but notice the absurdity of the contrast between the words of “The Chipmunk Song” and this beautiful prayer:
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and quarrel cease; fill all the world with heaven’s peace.
The season of Advent also gives us the chance to meditate on the reality of the rock solid, searingly bright hope we have in the living Christ. His incarnation was the first Advent, a fulfillment of a prophecy that was celebrated by those like the priest Simeon, who remembered and waited expectantly for God’s promise to come to fruition. His words of celebration when he met the infant Christ are recorded for us in Luke 2:30-32:
For my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.
The fulfillment of the prophecy of his birth, life, death, and resurrection should give us the confidence to hope in his second coming when he will make all things new. In fact, some argue that the season of Advent is actually more about his second coming than his birth. Laurence Hull Stookey articulates the fullness of the hope of Advent this way:
Because the term itself means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival,’ and because it precedes Christmas, many have misunderstood Advent to be exclusively a time to get ready to celebrate the coming of a child at Bethlehem. In fact, the primary focus of Advent is on what is popularly called ‘the second coming.’ Thus Advent concerns the future of the Risen One, who will judge wickedness and prevail over every evil. Advent is the celebration of the promise that Christ will bring an end to all that is contrary to the ways of God; the resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of this destruction of the powers of death, the inauguration and anticipation of what is yet to come in fullness.
Advent is a season to acknowledge our pain and brokenness. Advent is a season to look back and celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promise to provide a Savior through whom he would bring salvation and lasting healing from brokenness. Advent is also a season for hope and expectation that Christ will come again in glory, ushering in an eternity of peace, joy, and perfect, uninterrupted fellowship with him for those who believe.
If that’s true, then why do we so often experience a sense of letdown after Christmas Day? I would argue that, just as we are prone to find ways to avoid the pain of waiting, we also are prone to avoid the practice of actively hoping.
If the culture understands that waiting can be hard, it also definitely understands that humans need hope. The world of advertising is masterfully geared to generate hope. Marketing experts identify areas of need, desire, and discontent and offer an endless array of products and experiences that could possibly somehow fulfill our hopes for satisfaction. Even if you aren’t feeling particularly discontent, ads will attempt to cure you of your satisfaction by throwing bigger and better options at your feet that you never knew you needed. If we aren’t careful, we allow the possibilities to give us little sparks of hope that just maybe, if we take advantage of the special, one-time-only Christmas deal on hiking gear, we will actually become the cool, confident, and outdoorsy version of ourselves we always imagined. Maybe if we find the perfect Christmas gift for our in-laws, we’ll finally receive the approval and acceptance we’ve been after for years.
In all seriousness, hope is something for which people have always been desperate and sought. We see it in music, poetry, and film all the time, often tied to the concept of dreams. Think of another classic Christmas song, “White Christmas”. You could substitute the words “hoping for” for “dreaming of” and not much would change:
I’m “hoping for” a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.
Where the treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.
People are hard-wired to look for something to bring them fulfillment, whether that fulfillment be in their identity, relationships, or experience of the world. Langston Hughes beautifully captures the human need for hope in his poem “Dreams”:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
This poem is both beautiful and haunting. It reminds me of the hard truth of Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
There is an aspect of hope that I think culture understands and fears: hope can be dangerous. It is risky to long for something, to spend time dreaming and planning and desiring. Disappointed hopes can have devastating consequences on the human spirit. Just think of all of the books, songs, and films about heartbreak. We know what it is to be disappointed, if not in our own lives then at least vicariously through the lives of others. I think of the song “Maybe Tomorrow” by Luke Sital-Singh, which describes the cycle of hope, disappointment, and trying again with heartbreaking simplicity:
I hope maybe tomorrow I’m gonna get it right.
I’m gonna hurt a little less inside.
I say maybe tomorrow, given it another try.
I wanna hurt a little less inside.
I lay back down, my body broken.
Is hope found, or is hope chosen?
It takes its toll on my brightest spirit.
It’s darkening. Oh, I’m just not in it.
As a child I was highly sensitive to injustice. My favorite stories were always the ones where good prevailed and evil was overcome. I would imagine myself in the role of the victor in each tale, standing confidently on the side of the just and good and glaring righteously down at the rubble that was left of the enemy’s plans. I was too young to understand my own powerlessness then, but somewhere along the path to adulthood, reality crept in. Good doesn’t always prevail. Sometimes people do really horrible things. Not everyone can be trusted, and not everywhere is safe. Sometimes you see something good destroyed right in front of your face, and sometimes good things you hope for are taken from you, if even given in the first place. As a child, the experience of disappointed hope was painful and formative, so I slowly developed the ability to avoid hope. It was easier to hope for nothing than to hope and be disappointed.
Hope-avoidance is a condition that plagues so many of us. Why? The answer is the objects in which we place our hope. They’re just too fragile. Even the most pure, beautiful, extraordinary, and stable things we can hope for carry the possibility of disappointment. So we respond by running to one of two extremes: hope-avoidance or habitual searching. Some of us try to temper the potential for disappointment by maintaining very low expectations, while others of us get caught in the cycle of searching, trying, and being let down over and over again. We buy, create, or manufacture objects and circumstances we believe will fulfill our desires, assuage our fears, and usher in a steadiness we can see and tangibly hold and touch right now.
As a person who works in full-time Christian ministry, I am a little embarrassed to admit my chronic hope-avoidance. Just think of all the songs Christians sing about hope in church! But I, just like the wandering people of Israel in the Old Testament, and just like a toddler with a five-second attention span, am prone to forget. That is why the season of Advent is essential. It reorients, recalibrates, and invigorates my capacity to hope by reminding me that hope is not in my identity, ability, or circumstances. It is in a person. All throughout the Old and New Testaments are sprinkled reminders that our hope is the Lord himself. Psalm 71:5 says, “For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth.” Psalm 62:5 says, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.” The writer of Hebrews talks about the “hope set before us,” which is Christ and the work he has done to secure our salvation and eternal life with him (Heb 6:18-20).
If our only hope is in the person of Christ, why do we spend so much time chasing and longing for things that cannot bear the weight of all of our expectations? I can only answer with certainty for myself, but I would hazard a guess that this answer is true for many of us: all too often, I simply don’t believe Jesus is enough. I don’t believe he really is capable of fulfilling me in the midst of waiting, suffering, and heartache. I don’t want to give up on my temporary distractions just in case trusting and hoping in him is too painful. Something temporary and shallow feels easier than risking to hope that Jesus really is all that I need. Waiting is hard, and hope is dangerous. There. I’ve said it. The worst part of it all is I truly have experienced the goodness of Jesus in seasons of intense pain, isolation, and grief, but, like I mentioned earlier, I am prone to forget.
While I’m inclined to feel shame at my chronic battle with unbelief, I also know that God is extraordinarily kind and patient. He knows we are weak. Through his incarnation and life on earth, Jesus experienced weakness himself and understands it is hard: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Part of the experience of brokenness of the world includes my own broken capacity to wait and hope. The season of Advent frees me to admit my struggle and cry out to God for help. I crave this yearly rhythm of returning to these four weeks when I actively name the things I long for and turn my eyes again upon Jesus, who is my hope even when I struggle to believe. When I meditate on who Jesus is and all he has done, when I ask for the Spirit to strengthen my heart, when I gather in corporate worship and hear the voices of my church family proclaiming the hope we have in Christ, my grip on hope-avoidance is loosened little-by-little, year-by-year.
As a musician, I can’t help but reflect to the power of songs to shape and inform our perspective and experience of the world. The songs the culture would offer us in this season, though often written simply for humor and entertainment, teach us to hope for very little in actuality. A white Christmas? Much of the world is sunny and warm on Christmas Day, plus, too much snow can be miserable. Toys? Toys are quick to lose their shiny newness, sometimes as quickly as the day after Christmas. A significant other? Even the best person can’t avoid disappointing and hurting their loved ones.
I’m not saying beautiful winter weather, thoughtful gifts, and loving relationships aren’t worth longing for. But if we only exercise our hope for temporary things, we set ourselves up for perpetual disappointment. What if we never get the things we’ve asked for? What hope do we have then? The book of Revelation, in all its strangeness, contains one of the most beautiful promises found in Scripture:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
These words are a promise, not a possibility. This coming reality, for which every human heart longs and which nothing on else earth can satisfy, is a guarantee for those who trust in Christ. We can wait in confidence not because our own ability to hope is strong enough. We can wait in confidence because the Advent of the new heavens and the new earth is being accomplished by the only one who can be trusted to see it through. Jesus, who endured painful waiting and suffering like us and for us, who understands the desires of our hearts and our fearful longings, is actively at work to bring his people home to himself. Jesus is our hope.
We are always in the season of Advent this side of heaven, still waiting for the final tear to dry, the last hardship to pass, the last pain to subside. But God has promised to make all things new. That promise is something I can share with my friends who are grieving profoundly in this season. That promise is something worth putting down temporary distractions and waiting for with open hands, even when it is uncomfortable or even painful. That promise is worthy of our hope not only because it is good and beautiful but also because it is true. Our hope, Christ alone, can bear the weight of all of our expectations and longings.
Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a king;
Born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit, rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.
 Edward Pola and George Wyle, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” 1963, Columbia Records.
 Ross Bagdasarian, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” 1958, Liberty Records.
 Phillip H. Pfatteicher, Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year (Oxford University Press: 2013), 28.
 Ibid, 29.
 Shadowlands, directed by Richard Attenborough, screenplay by William Nicholson, featuring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger (United International Pictures, 1993), Cinema (1993).
 Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Abingdon Press: 1996), 121.
 Irving Berlin, “White Christmas,” recorded May 1942, Decca Records.
 Langston Hughes, “Dreams,” 1922. “Poets.org,” Academy of American Poets, poets.org/poem/dreams. Accessed 4 December 2023.
 Luke Sital-Singh, “Maybe Tomorrow,” recorded April 2021, Raygun Records.
 Revelation 21:3-4.
 Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” 1744.