I wanted to write a joyful post on this Feast of Christmas, but my heart isn’t there yet. It is as though Advent wasn’t quite long enough. I needed more time. I’m not ready for Christmas. So, I offer this short Christmas reflection with those who, like me, may be feeling a bit more Advent-y than Christmas-y.
Just a few short weeks ago, Brian Flanagan wrote on the First Sunday of Advent and asked us to reclaim the spiritual practice of fasting during Advent. His reflection on Advent and God’s absence offer me comfort today. He wrote:
“[t]here’s a deeper theological rationale for fasting, at least a bit, this Advent. Fasting and abstinence are about hunger, about desire, about need, and Advent is above all the liturgical season that celebrates our need for God, our (sometimes) patient waiting for God in the dark seasons of our lives. Whether directed at the fulfillment of God’s plan in the final coming of Christ or at the beginnings of that plan in the Incarnation, Advent points us to where God is absent. Absent in our dangerous world, absent in our unjust societies, absent in our despairing cities, absent in some of our distressed families, absent in our sometimes hopeless hearts.”
While Advent is the blessed time of waiting, of noticing our need for God, the Christmas season we begin today is the holy time of celebrating the reality that God is with us, present in the fragile, vulnerable little babe, who enters this world, what Thomas Merton calls this “demented inn.” And yet, Flanagan’s words remind me that the pain and suffering in spaces and places where God’s presence is felt more by God’s absence remain—even as we celebrate Christmas. Even as we listen to the joyful news that Christ is born, we may still sense a poignant yearning in our hearts. It is as though the fullness of Christ’s coming has yet to be realized. And it is true. It has not. The incarnation is not a magic trick; Christ’s coming requires us to greet him, to change our hearts and minds. It takes conversion. It takes struggle. It takes continued patient waiting. Thank goodness the Christmas season is not just one day!
If you are bearing a heavy heart today, if celebration and joy seem far off, if you sense God’s absence more than God’s presence, remember that the first Christmas was also tinged with uncertainty, struggle, pain, and restless wondering about the future. Perhaps it is fitting that our celebration of Christ’s birth seems like it falls short, that there is something that remains unfulfilled. It reminds us that our Christmas prayers of joyful thanksgiving and praise must still include our plea, “Maranatha! Come Jesus! Come!”