Introductory 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.

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

Text First Published December 2017

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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