Editor's note:

We are grateful to share a different take on the season of Advent with you today. Sometimes, in this season of busyness and bustle, we can find ourselves surprised by a sort of emptiness in our response to it all. Carolyn Arends describes it as being kind of stuck in the South Pole. If you’re feeling a bit lost in the wilderness this time of year, Carolyn is here to remind you that an empty sort of longing is a large part of what Advent is really about. 

—Renovaré Team

People are rarely neutral about the approach of Christmastime. Some of us reside at a North Pole of intense anticipation and excitement, while others of us hole up at a South Pole of irritation and dread.

Usually, I am at the North end of the Christmas polarity. But there have been a few Advent seasons during which I have found myself at the South Pole, feeling strangely empty and somehow exhausted by all the hoopla. The first couple of Christmases after my dad died were like that for me. And while I was fortunate enough to have excited children in my home to drag me back into the festivities, I did get a little taste of the sadness that characterizes Advent for many people.

A season that is all about family can be a desperately lonely time for people who find themselves living in isolation, or grieving the loss of a loved one, or trying to cope with family stress. And for those of us who follow the church calendar, if Advent happens to come at a time when we are in a spiritually barren place, the call to open up our hearts to the season can intensify our experience of doubt or alienation.

Undoubtedly, some people are just not “feeling it” this Advent, due to temperament or circumstance or who knows what. Perhaps the season finds you at a South Pole of sadness, or in a wilderness of spiritual alienation. If that’s the case, it’s important to remember that Advent is a season all about longing and emptiness and waiting. It is a season set aside to help us realize that we need deliverance from our current condition.

Not coincidentally, two of this year’s Old Testament and the New Testament lectionary readings—Isaiah 40 and Mark 1—each begin in the same place. They are both set in the wilderness.

In Isaiah 40, the Israelites are at a South Pole of political exile and spiritual desolation. After chapter upon chapter of warnings and judgment, God begins to speak assurance through his prophet.

“Comfort, comfort my people,” he begins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (v. 1).  And then a voice cries, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3).

This metaphor of a kind of superhighway being made through the wilderness is a favorite theme of Isaiah’s. It asks the listener to picture the rough, nearly impassable terrain to the east of Jerusalem being smoothed out into a wide and welcoming path. And it has at least two layers of meaning.

First, for the long-exiled Israelites, it’s a promise of a yearned-for homecoming. This passage is sounding a theme played earlier in Isaiah chapter 35, where the prophet promises the Israelites that they will eventually re-enter Zion, singing with joy as they go. He assures them that they’ll get there by traveling a highway of holiness that is devoid of lions and other beasts. In other words, a path is going to open up for them that is free from threat or danger.

But the metaphor resonates with another meaning, too.

Because whenever a king was coming to town, a herald was sent ahead to announce the impending arrival and to make sure that they host city rolled out the red carpet and prepared the way. So to the Israelite ear, the voice of one calling to prepare the way in the wilderness means not only that they are going to get to go home, but also that the Lord himself is on his way.

Please join us tomorrow for the conclusion: The Gifts of the Wilderness.

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Originally published in Christianity Today as “Advent is a Season of Longing” (December 19, 2017).