It’s been a few years since I actively celebrated Advent or even decorated for Christmas, and given the past four months and the general emotional upheaval I’ve felt, I wasn’t sure I was going to do much this year to celebrate.
The gingerbread festival that has, for the past 20 years, been a stake of stability in my efforts to feel any yuletide spirit has been discontinued, I’m no longer teaching piano lessons where I spend December playing fun Christmas duets with my students, I’m not playing the primo part of a 4-hand accompaniment in the school Christmas concert.
And since I’m taking a sabbatical from my church right now, I’m not singing in any Christmas concerts or programs or playing the piano for any soloists.
All the usual pulls toward celebrating Christmas are gone this year.
I wasn’t raised with a liturgical Advent, but in recent years, I’ve felt drawn to it, so I observed it as best I could, using resources I found online. But I went to a church today, one I’ve been attending off and on for the past few months, to see what it would be like to observe the first Sunday of Advent with others.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I left the service with two commissions from the pastors.
Commission one: “May our hearts be open to the unexpected places where we encounter the sacred light of God that leads us toward hope.”
How many unexpected places might I encounter God’s light this month? I will spend hours at school teaching, working basketball games, supervising newspaper deadline, helping with musical auditions. I will spend time with friends and family and see movies and read books. The commission to be open to God’s light reminds me that I can find it in so many places, and will have opportunities to be that light to others.
Commission two: “May we see every Christmas tree as a symbol of hope.”
I’ve never thought of a Christmas tree as a symbol of hope. Instead, I’ve seen it as a symbol of what I don’t have. As I’ve often said to friends when they ask if I’m decorating for Christmas, “Why should I put up a tree when there’s nothing to put under it?”
But shifting my Christmas paradigm a bit to see a Christmas tree as a symbol of hope feels revolutionary, subversive even. I think of the ornaments I’ve collected over the years—gifts from students, tokens from places I’ve traveled, heirlooms from family members—and my Christmas tree morphs into a symbol of a life well-lived.
Hope, as our culture has come to define it, can be hard. When coupled with faith, we tend to equate it with wishing for things: an illness to heal, a child to love, a spouse to care for. Or maybe we hope-wish for a better home, an air fryer, or the latest tech gadget. And when those hope-wishes don’t materialize, it can feel like hope is futile and faith is weak.
But what if the biblical definition of hope points us to something else entirely, something unrelated to dipping our toes in the prosperity gospel pool?
Looking at the Greek base, the word hope is more closely related to anticipate, usually with pleasure; expectation or confidence.
Those words as synonyms for hope carry a purer meaning for this first week of Advent—the expectation that Christ will come, the confidence of what His coming means for the entire world in terms of peace and salvation.
Reframing my definition of hope is vital to observing Advent and celebrating Christmas, because I do expect Christ to come, and I expect that with confidence. A biblical hope isn’t reliant on medicine or biology or another person’s choices or how much money is in my bank account. A biblical hope is simply expecting Jesus to come, to teach, to save.
So despite my usual feeling that putting up a tree and other Christmas decorations is a general waste of my time, this year I’m going to pull out the tubs of ornaments and nativities and try to remember that what they all truly represent is hope.