We are poised to step into Advent, aren’t we?
Advent means "coming" or "arrival".
It is a time of joy and expectation. So why is it that at this elated time of year, when each day carries celebration, we can feel alienated, lonely, heartsick? As if we belong elsewhere, not in the crazy melee that Christmas has become.
In brief, I believe, it’s because we do; we do belong elsewhere.
I must have been about 13 when I confided in my mother, "I don’t feel at home in the world; in fact I sometimes feel I don’t even belong in this family".
Much to her credit she didn’t explode or feel threatened. Instead, she said, "in a sense, you don’t. None of us do. Consider Hebrews 11".
(My dear Mama was a teacher; she sometimes spoke commandingly.)
I did so consider. I read about Abraham looking forward to a city, and other heroes of the faith knowing they were foreigners and strangers on Earth and "longing for a better country — a heavenly one ... ".
"Think about this," my mother later said.
"Your discomfort may be pointing you to a belonging much greater than to your environment. And even your family."
She spoke truth. Somehow at Christmas-time year after year I’ve felt that tug of otherness; I’ve known beyond a shadow that this is not my abiding place and that therefore, despite a happy optimism taking hold of my personality, there always remains between me and the festivities a film, a slight divide.
Then some years ago, asking the question, "why, Lord, do I feel like a misfit at this most crucial time of year?" I read The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent by Paula Gooder.
I won’t tell you about the book right now; I’d rather say simply that it switched on an inner light.
Yes, Jesus came as a babe, humbling himself ineffably. Yes, there is reason to step out of the humdrum, sing carols and rejoice. Yes, do let’s commune with others and be happy.
Also, that there’s a glorious future awaiting us, the life to come engaging us like nothing on Earth.
I suddenly realised that this is what we mean when we sing, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
It’s not only rejoicing about the birth of Jesus as a baby; it’s anticipating the joy of His coming again and taking us to be with Him. The present opening a portal to the future.
Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird that an elderly man in her church in San Francisco one day thundered, "God is your home!".
When I read that I thought, this is it. We’re born for and straining towards something beyond ourselves and our own time; we want in short to be with the God who made us, because it’s in His company that we feel most at home, most like ourselves.
But we’re not there yet; we’re here, in a future full of ambivalence and conflict. How in this period of "not yet the Kingdom" do we experience and express God?
Particularly during Advent, God-with-us? How do we deal with disillusionment and what might feel like the "indefinite waiting" visited upon us?
In the 14th century the mystic Meister Eckhart asked a number of wise questions. One was: "what good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem, if he is not born today in our own time?". Again, this is it. He is born today. In us, as believers. We are joined with the saviour-king "whose Kingdom will never end".
Christmas Day is the joyful remembrance and celebration of that.
I think what I’m trying to say is this. We yearn for a world beyond this one. We want to enjoy fellowship with God in the next world because that’s where our hearts ultimately lie, and where our belonging is.
But as long as we’re here, in this world that often disappoints with its gaudiness and hoopla, we carry the hope of a future with God.
And every day we can bear Jesus with us, experience the Incarnation and manifest His love and life in our hearts, homes and world.
I hope that this Advent you will experience a coming home, a sense of at-homeness in the world because of your at-homeness in God, the joy of which — Jesus breaking into the world and our hearts — you carry with you.
- Jenny Beck is a Dunedin lawyer.