You don’t listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. Or so I’ve said.
But 2020 is no normal year. So this year, we’ve accelerated Advent. We’re breaking our normal rules and commencing the season of waiting and hoping for the arrival of Jesus. This has practical implications: Last weekend, I strung lights on the pine tree in our backyard and we dusted off our favorite seasonal Spotify playlists.
But more than that, accelerating Advent is about embracing a new posture for the remaining six weeks of the year. We look forward to the coming glories of Christmas, but before, we enter this season with the somber reality of how very bleak things are in our own hearts and in the world around us.
As our favorite Advent theologian, Fleming Rutledge, writes, “Advent is the season that, when properly understood, does not flinch from the darkness that stalks us all in this world. Advent begins in the dark and moves toward the light—but the season should not move too quickly or too glibly, lest we fail to acknowledge the depth of the darkness.”
On a warm night in late April, Alli and I sat down on our patio after putting the kids to bed. I shared something aloud I had been feeling privately for a while.
“I think I might be depressed.”
This revelation did not surprise her. Over the course of the previous months, I had been distant, withdrawn, and emotionally flat. I was often lost in my own thoughts, my mind turning over the newest research or lockdown stories I had just read about. I devoured the news, often spending hours each day reading and assessing the latest outlook.
The steady, everyday stress began to eat away at my hope. The what-ifs consumed my thoughts. I was demoralized and discouraged much of the time, even if I attempted to be cheery. The leadership journey can be deeply isolating amid hard times and I really felt this. I wanted to inspire hope for my team. I wanted to cast a compelling vision for HOPE’s donors. But I struggled to believe the very things I said. My self-diagnosis was not clinical, of course, but the shoe fit. While I’m in a far better place today, I know I’m not alone this year.
Darkness is all around us. We see it in the deaths from the virus and the deaths of despair caused by the lockdowns. We see it in how politics dictate our national conversation, straining friendships and dominating our imaginations. We see it in how 2020 punishes the most vulnerable most severely. We see it in the surges of depression, suicide rates, drug addictions overdoses, and catastrophic academic regression. Lord have mercy. It’s been a hard year.
But, as Rutledge acknowledges, Advent only begins in the darkness. It does not end there.
“The disappointment, brokenness, suffering, and pain that characterize life in this present world is held in dynamic tension with the promise of future glory that is yet to come,” she writes. “In that Advent tension, the church lives its life.”
We step forward not with a naive hope, but in hope surrounded by the darkness. Jesus arrived in a world not so dissimilar to our own. A world wrought with poverty, racism, disease, and heartache. Right in the midst of a dark world, hope exploded into view in that nondescript town of Bethlehem.
More than ever before, we need Advent. We need to remember darkness is not novel in 2020. We need to ache. And, we need the hope of celebration. The hope of new life. The joy of Jesus’ arrival amid all that pain. So for this year, we’re breaking our own rules and ushering in the season we need now more than ever.
Chris Horst is the chief advancement officer at HOPE International, where he employs his passion for advancing initiatives at the intersection of faith and work.