Let’s be honest. Most of us don’t really know what to do with Advent. It seems like the rest of the world is barreling full-steam ahead into Christmas on board a glitzy, turbo-charged sleigh while the church plods along toward Bethlehem at a frustratingly deliberate pace. That’s what Advent can
feel like.

Some of us learn to live with the restlessness during these short days and long nights of Advent—but we don’t necessarily like it. We feel as though we’re being forced to eat our vegetables while a huge coconut cake sits in full view just slightly beyond our reach. Others of us decide that life’s too short to wait and so, following the principle of “eat dessert first,” merrily plunge headlong into this most wonderful time of the year, with parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow. Either way, Advent ends up being a kind of Christmas pre-game show. Some of us endure it. Some of us ignore it. Either way, I’m afraid we miss the point.

I’ve found it helpful to think of Advent as an invitation from a patient God who knows we’re not ready for all the love He wants to give us. We don’t have enough room in our hearts. At least, not yet. Advent gives God’s Spirit time to do its holy work in us, getting that room ready to welcome God’s Son. I recently read a short essay by Eugene Peterson that did a nice job illustrating this idea. He writes about the experience of learning that he’s about to become a first-time grandfather and driving, with his wife, Jan, to go visit his son and daughter-in-law. It’s worth quoting him here at length:

* “As we got closer to greeting them Jan’s anticipation heightened, but somehow this pregnancy hadn’t penetrated my emotions. I felt dull, flat, routine. “Driving back home the next day, I complained of my lack of ebullience, an emotion Jan had in excess. ‘What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I feel anything?’ “Jan said, ‘It’s because you’ve never been pregnant.’ “I said, ‘Well, that’s just great; so what am I going to do about it?’ “She told me to build a cradle. “When I got home I went to the public library and found pictures of cradles. I decided on an early American hooded cradle, sketched out plans, went to a specialty wood shop, and chose some Honduras mahogany. Most afternoons I came home early from my parish duties to my shop and worked on that cradle. I decided to finish it with applications of Tung oil. I worked on each piece of that cradle with the finest grade of sandpaper, over and over. Each application of Tung oil deepened the color. After several applications it seemed like the wood glowed from within. I worked with each piece of the cradle—shaping it, holding it, rubbing it over and over—and all the time anticipating the baby who would be in that cradle, over and over and over. “ Jan’s prescription worked; I got pregnant. Week after week of shaping that cradle—my hands and fingers working the wood, over and over anointing with the oil that set the mahogany on fire from within—I imagined the developing baby who would soon be swaddled in that cradle, praying in gratitude and anticipation for the life in our daughter-in-law’s swelling womb. By the time the cradle was ready, I was ready, prepared to receive the gift of new life.”

Think of Advent worship, Advent devotions, Advent prayers, Advent acts of service and generosity, then, as cradle-building: the slow, deliberate, careful work of creating a suitable space for God’s love to come, stay, and grow in our hearts. It’s not something to rush through, nor should it be an exercise in impatient endurance. Our Christian tradition wisely sets aside these weeks before Christmas for this most necessary work. After all, that baby’s coming—and he’s going to need somewhere to sleep. Maybe this Advent, we’ll finally take advantage of this gift of time to engage in some cradle building of our own. I hope so. “And yet, when the Son of Man comes,” asks Jesus in Luke 18:8, “will he find faith on earth?”

May the peace of Christ be with you!

* Eugene Peterson, “Learning to Love the Church,”
CT Pastors, 2017, p. 32-33