by Dan Hislop
One Christmas we were waiting for a friend to be healed, but the chances weren’t good.
Advent is waiting.
Israel was waiting.
And we are waiting for all things to be made right: not just in the world we read about, but even in the thoughts that we hope no one can read.
In advent we celebrate that Christ was born, but we live between “The Already” and “The Not Yet,” as my pastor is fond of saying.
Already Christ has come, but still He is yet to come.
And so we wait.
The Christmas we were waiting for a friend to be healed, we knew the chances weren’t good. His type of brain cancer won 90% of the time in the first year, and we were 9 months in. Our waiting was not passive – we met together frequently to pray, share, plan for care, and reminisce. We shared the latest doctor reports as we heard from his wife. We vented frustrations and even found laughter around those candlelit nights on the living room couches.
Meanwhile the world around us carried on with Christmas noise, preparations, and the pressure to get it just right. It seemed to me every smiling face outside of this healing community was determinedly gift-wrapping stress into perfectly square boxes with a bow. And it turns out the pressure was not just external – as I unwrapped my own Christmas box I found expectations unspoken, strong enough to yell at those around me whose play delayed my perfect dinnertime and Christ-centered rituals.
Even in church we can find a disconnect in this season. Christmas is a high season for churches – Easter and Christmas being the Sundays most likely to use extra folding chairs set out behind the last pew – and why shouldn’t it be? Christ came to earth, Christ was raised from the dead, and the sheer unlikelihood of either requires the highest celebration for believers. But how to enter in? Easter has its season of Lenten preparation to remind us of the depths from which He rose. Easter’s Good Friday reminds us how much He gave. But in perfect symbolism of man-made Christmas, Black Friday kicks off the season with a focus on how much we can get.
Christmas needs a reminder that we are waiting for something more than store-bought gifts. (January’s doldrums are that reminder, but what if we could know it ahead of time?) It’s too common to approach Christmas as a standard we are trying to reach – every list checked twice, every decoration set, and every gift reciprocated with an equal-value gift. Advent allows us to accept that we can’t possibly keep up and in fact, very few things around us seem right in the world. We can breathe deep and NOT hold it all together for once. We need help, and we are waiting.
By the time our friend died from his tumor the next October, we’d learned many lessons about waiting that we never signed up for. God heard every one of our prayers, but did not answer in the way we were hoping for. Our prayers had slowly and painfully changed from asking for a miracle, to simply, “let us find our rest in thee.”
Israel was waiting for ages for a rescuer, a savior, someone who would come and change the course of history in their favor. But He never seemed to come. The timeline of the Bible itself shows a 400-year gap of literary silence between Malachi and Matthew. That’s surely the same type of silence that answered our questions for healing the cancer.
Yet as a new Christmas approached, this shed a stain-glass light into Advent we’d never seen before. We were waiting for Christ to come, and we desperately needed Israel’s Strength and Consolation to be the joy of our longing hearts. We knew more acutely now that we were awaiting the second advent of Christ, the one which restores our world to its Eden-like state. The one where our friend’s smile was alive again and not just a memory.
That year we set aside an hour in early December to reflect on Advent as a community. The service was called “Strength and Consolation” and was not filled with the common Christmas service trimmings and many-versed songs. Instead we focused on waiting on God, using a few scriptures and allowing time for quiet reflection. Pairs were available around the edges to pray with those who asked. The acoustic music included a violin and piano, and songs were chosen to match the on-screen scriptures on Rest, Restoration, and Joy.
It was a hard sell then and still is today, as we continue to hold the service many years later. But when we give space to bring our disappointment, stresses, and unfilled expectations before God, we find deeper places in the manger of our soul to receive the Christ. As in any worship service, there is the goal of turning our eyes away from the manger and onto the One it was made to hold. And then we can reverently sing, “Oh come let us adore Him” and it is worship. We can end the service with “Joy to the World, the Lord is come” and trust that it was true, it is true, and it will be true.
We know it, and we wait for it.
Dan Hislop is a worship leader at Santa Barbara Community Church, Santa Barbara, CA.