Advent isn’t a season in which we force ourselves to be sad, it’s the season in which we recognise how sad we truly are.
I visited the chapel and house where I worked last year and had a good laugh last week. In the corner of the dining room was a tall and resplendent Christmas tree in green and gold glory. Hung prominently from its top branch however, was a hand-painted sign of large black letters instructing all viewers that this was not a Christmas tree, but an ‘ADVENT TREE’.
The presence of a tree was the concession of the house Principal, who heartily advocates a full observance of the Advent season that includes delaying the decking of halls and bellowing of carols until the actual days of Christmas. While I am annually amused by the good-humoured tug-of-war between him and the chapel interns, I am equally halted and somewhat challenged by this concept of keeping a season of waiting specifically in preparation for what, from childhood, I’ve felt to be the highest day of the year.
Why Advent? Why wait? Why delay fun and colour and good food? Why this season of sobriety and even penitence (if you’re doing it like early Christians) when the whole point is that Christ came to start the party up again and heal the world? It’s my easy and initial response.
But I’ve been studying Lady Mara this week. She’s a character in George MacDonald’s last novel, Lilith. Daughter of Eve, mother of all the living, she embodies the sorrow of the world and the way that grief helps us to honesty – about ourselves and our need. In MacDonald’s story, all people must eventually dwell in her house, tasting the bitterness of their fallen humanity.
But Lady Mara’s is a healing, gracious sorrow and those who dwell with her come to know themselves truly, to understand their need for healing. Her gentle hands, her simple bread, and cold water work as agents to drive away the self-deceptions and lies of pride and envy and sin that blind the human heart, driving it to hatred and destruction. Mara is sorrow, but Mara is healing because the sorrow she nourishes in her guests is that of repentance and that gives way to hope. Her sweet, wise grief teaches her guests the deepest kind of hope because it points them to the Father who can (and will) make them whole.
I begin to think that Advent is a sojourn in Mara’s house, a season in which I let hush and longing teach me once more to yearn for the coming of Christ.
One of the most beautiful things said at my wedding was by a friend who spoke of the waiting for love to come. She described how she had watched me wait for God to bring Thomas for many years, and she spoke of her own longing for love. ‘But I’ve been thinking about waiting,’ she said, ‘and I’ve realised that though Thomas is an incredible gift, you’re still waiting. Because we’re all waiting. We’ll always be waiting for Jesus to return. Now, you have someone to wait with.’
I think that waiting and longing is central to Christian identity. We’re supposed to be the ones who recognise that the party hasn’t quite begun. We’re the ones who know that wealth and ease aren’t the answer to the sorrowing world. We’re the ones who can tell the difference between glitz and grace. We’re the ones who know that no amount of stuff given, or things collected can satisfy the hunger of our hearts to be forgiven, to be redeemed and made one with Love.
But sometimes even we need Advent to remind us of our central identity as those who hunger for Christ, to realise that he alone is the end of every yearning of our hearts. I know I need the sojourn in Mara’s Advent house because I forget this. I long for many other things; friendship and justice for the oppressed and a little more money and that one piece of furniture for the house and healing for my friends whose hearts or bodies are broken. I long for circumstance to change, suffering to end, for all my wants to be granted.
And of course, I live in a world that doesn’t really like to sit much with sorrow. I’ve been so struck by what one of my teachers here calls our modern and total lack of ‘liturgies for death’, rituals by which to navigate bereavement and suffering, because we want to put it off as long as possible and pretend it won’t happen.
But Advent isn’t a season in which we force ourselves to be sad, it’s the season in which we recognise how sad we truly are. In Advent we remember that we are still waiting. Christmas is when we remember that Christ has come to defeat death and ‘overcome the world’. But Advent is when we remember that we are still in that world. We are children of God, inheritors of glory, and we still get cancer, we still fight wars, we still suffer loneliness, and death. Advent is when have the chance to stop running and be still, the season that allows us to recognise our need for Christ’s final coming to right the suffering of children, the loneliness of the poor and forgotten, the grief of the sick, the darkness crouched in our own hearts.
As I sit in Mara’s gentle presence during the Advent season, facing my own yearning for friends to be healed or love to be restored or even just for a little more ease to life, my soul is widened by quiet, stilled by honesty, made spacious with recognition of my need. I become a great dwelling space waiting to be lit by Love. Only in that waiting, that ready hunger, that yearning, can I then receive the gift of Christmas to the full. Christmas, when it does come is then both my joy in the present, my wonder at the Holy Spirit presence of Christ in me, glory glimpsed in the keeping of this feast where all good things begin again. But it is also a foretaste of the triumph, the innocent splendour, the crashing joy of Christ’s final coming when all is renewed. Advent so shapes my heart that at Christmas, I am living eternity in time, glimpsing the new heavens and earth in its beauty.
But the way to that glory is through Mara’s house. I keep it in a quiet way. I still have my candles and some greenery and sweet music for company, and of course, we’ll keep some Christmas festivity amidst the quiet, too. But I use this season to reflect. To read the searching of other writer’s hearts. To list my need, and articulate my hope. I let Mara sit with me and I find that her touch is kind. However you keep this Advent season, may Mara’s company, in whatever form, be not bitter, but sweet. Her touch the one that teaches you afresh to hope and readies your heart for the radiant joy of Christmas.
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.