“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.”
Christina Rosetti (Words), Gustav Holst (Music)
A seminary professor once taught, “The Christian year is twelve months long, but the year with Christ is only eleven months long.” What he meant is that this season of Advent is a time before – before Jesus’ birth, before the coming of Messiah, before salvation. In our current world, humanity tends to race toward the finish, jump to the end, and cut out the unpleasant part to get to the good stuff. Advent has become such a time in the Church. Rather than explore the world in the absence of a Savior, we fill Advent with Christmas. We know how the story turns out, so we bring the angels and the shepherds and the magi – and even the baby in the manger – to the season of Advent. Many churches sing Christmas carols that celebrate the birth and proclaim the joy well in advance of the event. No longer do we wander the weeks of Advent in hopeful hopelessness and deep darkness; we fill Advent with Christmas.
But when we fill Advent with Christmas, we lose something precious – we lose the miracle. Advent is not so much a looking toward the birth of Christ, but a time of looking around to fully appreciate why we so desperately need a Savior. Look around. Look at a world where there is so much fear. Look at a world of gross injustice. Look at a planet being ravaged and destroyed. Look at the economic injustice that leads to abject poverty. Look at the hopelessness and despair that leads to terrorism and escalating acts of violence. Look at a world where the rhetoric of hate and hostility makes the threat of war a daily concern. Live with this world. Feel its pain and need. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t despise it. And don’t give up.
Isaiah 9:2 says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” Indeed, this is a glorious prophecy of hope, but it recognizes that before the light, there was darkness. Before healing, there was brokenness. Before dawn was a deep, dark night. The miracle and power and joy of the light exist in contrast to the darkness. The joy to come is only joy because of the despair it displaces.
Advent is the time before. Let us not make haste to put it behind us. Let us not deny it. Let us not jump into Christmas, simply because we can. Jesus is not here yet. The shepherds have no inkling of what is to come. The magi are just now packing for the journey. The angels are rehearsing in their heaven. And all is NOT right with the world.
Gracious God, hear us. All around us we see cause for despair. People are starving; many live on the street. The vulnerable are abused; physically, sexually, emotionally, and culturally. The rich get richer, while the poor lose the little they have. Wars break out; weapons abound; and many see violence as their best solution to a hopeless existence. Help us, Lord. It should not be like this. We wait, Lord, in darkness; but how long must we wait? How long, O Lord, until we see your blessed light? Amen.
Grace and Peace,
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).