Into our exhaustion breaks the season of Advent, when we look to the Light of the World for consolation.
“Lord, just help us make it to Advent…”
I find myself praying these words often during the final weeks of autumn. Contrary to T.S. Eliot’s turn of the phrase, November has frequently seemed the cruelest month—if not always for me, then for many of my dearest friends. The weeks following corn mazes and harvest moons have brought with them some of the most profound exhaustion and sadness that I have ever witnessed. Sometimes these are the products of unspeakably disheartening news, while in other instances they are the simply the wages of yet another year of subjection to the tides of time—tides that nearly always wear away, rather than building back up.
This phenomenon seemed strange to me when I first began to notice it. I have long called fall my favorite season, and that moment when the first cold breeze hits my face has always felt like sucking in sharp joy by the lung-full. But my dear mother has always had a different opinion, saying that she can’t truly love the fall for dread of what comes after it. I think the passing of recent years has helped me to better understand what she means.
More is at play here than seasonal depression, I believe. Or perhaps the seasonal depression is a far weightier matter than we have assumed it to be, stretching its roots beyond our present emotions and circumstances to manifest the more hidden and fearful parts of our souls. Autumn, for all the happiness in its early blazes, is ultimately a season of death. Every tree, regardless of its October brilliance, must eventually be laid bare before the November winds. No amount of color can stave off this fate. Likewise, the year 2017 is tired and dying, and we sons and daughters of Adam and Eve are given no exception when it comes to reminders of our own mortality. We are tired of bad news at home and abroad, tired of both unnecessary and unavoidable conflicts, tired even of our neighbors and certainly of ourselves. We are tired of the world’s death knell tolling its cacophonous dirge through each successive sin of fallen man.
Into this exhaustion breaks the season of Advent, during which we recall the millennia-long wait for the first coming of Israel’s Consolation. We remember the fainting, persistent longing with which the ancients looked to see the promised Great Light, and we remember the anxious dark centuries that preceded his arrival. These were centuries filled with bad news, with horrible conflicts and natural disasters, with tiresome neighbors, with incessantly sinful hearts. It was into a tired world exactly like ours that Christ first appeared, for nothing, of course, has truly changed since the days of Caesar Augustus: stables are still dirty, taxes are still collected, kings still murder babies to keep their thrones, and there is still no room for the traveler at the inn. And we too, of course, are still waiting for a promised Renewal that cannot arrive soon enough.
Advent is a season of waiting, but this waiting is not interminable. Christmas Day eventually arrives with its feasting and singing and shouts of jubilation. And in the midst of singing our joy to the world, we realize that somehow, some way, the weeks of waiting made the celebration of Christmas itself even sweeter.
Advent, then, is a catechism of sorts. It instructs us again in the truths that we forgot during the rest of the year: it reminds us in our exhaustion that our long vigil, like that of the ancients, will one day come to a joyous end. In short, Advent declares to our weary, impatient, and faithless hearts that all of this waiting is not in vain. Christ’s first coming affirms our faith that he will come again.
Perhaps these next weeks will unlock seeds of hope in our hearts that have long been hidden away. Perhaps we will find comfort in the knowledge that Christ himself was hidden away in the weak and helpless form of those he came to save, overturning forever our conventional logic of power and glory. Perhaps we will arrive at the Christmas feast in a month with strengthened faith that “God with us” is not only a fact of history, but also the defining reality of our present strivings and the promise of our future joy.