Over Thanksgiving, a family member, who grew up Roman Catholic, told me about how Advent was observed in the home where she grew up: not just by fasting from all desserts and meat, but by making multiple kinds of Christmas cookies they were not allowed to eat. Carefully baked, meticulously decorated, with strictly no sampling, the cookies were packaged tightly in shoeboxes and packed away into her mother’s closet until Christmas morning.
My family of origin had no such practice. I tried to imagine baking cookies with my young son and refusing to allow any taste-testing: seems like completely unnecessary torture for both of us. But that wasn’t how she remembers it: “I think it taught us something about how strong we were. We were conspiring together for something wonderful. It was good for us to learn self-control. And it made Christmas even more special and celebratory, when we could finally eat all those treats!” That family practice, as she experienced it, was one of building collective strength to get through the truly difficult experiences that life threw at them. More deeply, it was a chance to connect with the roots of Advent in longing for a Messiah, facing exile and violence with a will to hope for Good News, despite all the evidence.
Advent can be just that: a time to inhabit longing and discomfort, not just our own but also the deep longing for the world to be made right that we read in the Hebrew Bible and in the news today. Remembering the experiences of joy, redemption, and healing in our histories– experiences in which we came through suffering or difficulty not just wounded but wiser and more generous – is a spiritual practice, one that builds the muscle memory of our resilience and hope. But the consumer Christmas machine is not interested in history; it’s interested our anxiety, our denial, and our money. In the rush of preparations for Christmas, it’s easy to leave our engagement with memory behind.
So remember: If this is the Advent time of waiting and longing for God’s redemption of us, we know what comes next: Hope shows up in the form of God incarnate. Remember, too, that when hope showed up, it didn’t look like hope. It looked like a baby in a cave born to a woman of dubious morals in a tribe of conquered people in an occupied land. It took decades for that hope to blossom into Good News. And it took a fierce determination on the part of the shepherds and magi and Mary and Joseph and probably Jesus himself to choose hope over despair, to keep on believing that Good News was coming,
Here’s an invitation, then, for your Advent practice: Attend to your memories of joy and liberation. Dig into your own history, your family history, into the trials of this and other countries and of people of faith and even, heck, the stories of early Christianity and Judaism. Hone this thing we call memory. Why? Memory offers perspective on the present and our, and God’s, ability to respond creatively. Perhaps more importantly, memory helps us recognize God’s Beloved Community when it breaks in.
Raise up your heads, Jesus said. Say no to despair. What we need is the fierceness of hope, the inner fire that will let us defy fear and turn courageously toward the Good News already present among us, so that we can recognize God’s Kingdom when it breaks in before us, and join in.