In this morning’s gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, we heard the voice in the wilderness crying: John the Baptist’s bold call to repentance, to prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight. The John of the Second Sunday of Advent is a bit abrasive, but he’s also confident. He’s confident in his message, certain of the dawning of the messianic age that would come to save all Israel. He’s at the top of his game. Everything is going right.
But the John of the Third Sunday of Advent is quite different. Only a few chapters later in Matthew’s gospel, we find John in prison. Soon, he’ll be executed. Desperate for some vindication that he hadn’t gotten it all wrong, he sends his disciples to Jesus: Are you… the one… who is to come? Or… are we to… wait… for another? You can hear the undertones of regret in his voice, the disappointment, the dashed hope, the confusion. Suddenly, everything is going wrong. Now what?
A Blue Christmas, indeed.
Outside of church, we’ve been inundated for weeks by this point with nonstop reminders that this is supposed to be a season for happy holidays and a holly, jolly Christmas. But what happens when not everyone feels like celebrating? Whether you’re grieving the recent death of a loved one, remembering the anniversary of a loss, or overwhelmed with anxiety or depression…
American consumer culture doesn’t exactly help, insisting that we run at an almost breathless pace from celebration to celebration on Hallmark’s schedule of holidays. But: “Many of us suffer from ‘holiday blues,’” writes Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren, “and I wonder whether this phenomenon is made worse by the incessant demand for cheer – the collective lie that through enough work and positivity, we can perfect our lives and our world.” Just have a “positive attitude,” and everything will be better. But ask anyone living with grief or anxiety or depression to “snap out of it” and be more “positive,” and they’ll tell you they wish they could…but they just can’t.
Maybe: Advent is exactly the antidote we need. Advent is a season marked by waiting, by yearning, by hopeful expectation, by a promise yet to be fulfilled. Advent invites us to sit in the darkness and to feel God’s presence in the dark places, without rushing so quickly to the light of Christmas.
“Advent holds space for our grief,” Warren writes. In the waiting and deep desire for things to be made right, Advent invites us to “lean into almost cosmic ache.”
I suspect that many of us might identify more with the dismayed and disenchanted John the Baptist in the “cosmic ache” of his prison cell than the manufactured cheerfulness of a Hallmark holiday movie.
This time of year only intensifies feelings of grief and loss and anxiety in our lives, and any number of things can color the holiday blue. Whether it’s a recent death, chronic illness, or recent diagnosis, or the often messy and complicated relationships we have with our families of origin, or just a general feeling of being overwhelmed by life in all its ups and downs.
In a way, John the Baptist – revered as a saint on our liturgical calendar – gives us permission to observe a Blue Christmas. His despair and his questioning remind us that doubt is not the opposite of faith but is itself a very real part of the life of faith. John offers us an example of faith that makes room for doubt, for grief, for questioning, for not having it all together – and says that’s okay!
Blue Christmas is oftentimes a more faithful response to this season than the opposite.
It’s no accident the color of Advent is blue, the color of the night sky just before dawn. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Blue holds the promise that the sun will rise, and that even after the bleakest, coldest, longest night, the light will break forth, as the new day arrives. Blue may be the color of sadness, but blue is also the color of hope.”
That’s not meant to be some grand answer for we who find ourselves “blue,” but it is meant to be hope – and hope is much better than a definitive answer. Because hope is the product of memory and imagination.
Hope was the central message of Isaiah’s vision for God’s people. Filled with imagery of wilderness and desert, journey and liberation, the prophet deliberately evokes in their writing memory of the exodus, the way out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom, pointing an exiled people to their collective memory of God’s past faithfulness to give them hope for the future.
That hope is rooted in memory, but it also begs to be recast, reimagined, for a new reality. Even as Israel was once delivered from slavery, they can still imagine a new future free from exile. And even as Jesus has already come in history, we still sing for Emmanuel to “come, o come” because we still live with real pain and real problems.
Jesus’s answer to John’s pleading questions from prison is intentionally open-ended: What do you hear? What do you see? The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. Images evocative of Isaiah’s prophetic words, of God’s action in the past, of a yearning for God’s continued action. Hope, rooted in memory, fueled by imagination.
The promise of the prophets and of Jesus our Messiah is hope-full. But if you’re not there yet either, that’s okay too. As Lutheran pastor Collette Broady Grund, who herself has experienced deep grief over the recent, sudden death of her husband, writes, “I cannot say I believe [the prophets’] words just yet, but I want to. Maybe that wanting is movement enough toward God. It may only be desire now, but God’s spirit may yet use this season to fan that spark into an actual flame of faith.”
In the mire and in the muck, it’s easy to desire one type of Messiah, as John might have, a victorious conqueror who would make everything right again. But what John gets and what we get is something much more profound: The Messiah for whom we wait, the promised one for whom we yearn, the long-expected one for whom we hope, is Emmanuel, God-with-us, indeed one of us, struggles and all, who holds us and reminds us that through it all, we are not alone.