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four red candles on a wreath of green pine branches

The Absurdity of Advent Hope

Tamara Hill Murphy

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  • METİN ERDEM

    Thank you sister Tamara for your excellent article... I have two Advent hopes. First of them for me and other one is for the people on earth. Thanks God that I achieved my hope that was meeting with brothers and sisters. It was a gift from God. I am thankful to GOD for that. I am also homesick of Woodcrest and I had missed my brothers and sisters at Woodcrest . God helped me to achieve this hope. I joined the meeting with brothers and sisters on Advent breakfast meeting on first Advent. The other Advent of mine is PEACE AMONG ALL PEOPLE on earth. I know that each one of us can do something for that. Peace starts by smiling as mother Teresa said. And we can do more than smiling ; we can forgive and remember that we belong each other and peace is in our hearts.

“Advent Prayer”

In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.
. . . 

Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our fingertips.
We do not want our several worlds to end.
Come in your power
and come in your weakness
in any case
and make all things new.
Amen.

–Walter Brueggeman, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann

three red candles on a wreath of green pine and ribbons

A few years ago, the same year our family of six moved from upstate New York, where we’d lived our whole lives, to follow God’s calling in Austin, Texas, we discovered for the first time what it means to feel sad in the season approaching Christmas. Our children, aged thirteen to twenty, desperately missed friends and family whose presence in our lives had defined our holiday traditions. It wasn’t our first year to mark Advent, but in many ways, we noticed for the first time the meaning of its weeks of prayer, moderation, and lament. Our homesickness made us vulnerable, open to the wisdom and nourishment of the church’s historic calendar.

As in previous years, we lit a candle every night, prayed together, and squinted in the darkness to read a daily scripture and prayer. As newly-practicing Anglicans, we closed our prayer time by making the sign of the cross by candlelight, hoping that all we’d said and heard would be sealed within us until we met around the table again.

But, in the great tension of flesh and spirit that all of us must suffer, we also yawned a great deal, and often wished we could hurry back to television, homework, bed: the ordinary detritus of our home waiting to grab our attention as soon as we blew out the candles. At times, we bent our heads in quiet confession only to end up blurting out awkward apologies. At other times, we left apologies unsaid. In the middle of it all, we giggled at the juxtaposition of our everyday American lives with the often preposterous imagery spoken by blustery Old Testament oracles, wonder-struck gospel witnesses, and alarmed visionary writers of the apocalypse all converging in an infant born in a small-town shed.

It wasn’t just the language of scripture – rod of Jesse, a virgin birth, bowls of wrath, ancient betrothal customs, plowshares and pruning hooks – that struck us as strange. Hope itself is absurd. In her poem “After the Annunciation,” Madeleine L’Engle concurs:

This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.

Our family needed to embrace the irrationality of Advent hope. To practice, we made a list of things we hoped for, checked the list twice, and each settled on one thing each of us really, really, really hoped would happen soon. Lonely and uncertain in our new city, we hoped for new friends and jobs to help pay for college. With our Northeast “white Christmas” dreams, we hoped to feel at home in the middle of a hot, arid December. As a mother, I staked my hope on God’s promise to draw near to my children’s homesick hearts – and to mine as well. We tentatively prayed, and listened for what the Father impressed on our minds and hearts. We asked him to make our hopes match up with his, and to help us know the difference.

Our family needed to embrace the irrationality of Advent hope.

But the more we read and prayed together, the more I began to take comfort in the absurdity of the Advent narrative: a tiny nation of people who have been living for centuries in the darkness of unmet hope and unfulfilled promise finally receive what was prophesied in the form of a baby king born in a stable to a virgin mother and anxious father. The incarnation makes shepherds into royal guests and barn animals into silent midwives. So why not, I surmised, make the humble bric-a-brac of our new Texas life a part of the Advent story, and a reason to give thanks to the Giver of every good gift?

And so, that first Advent away from the place we’d always known as home, we made lists not only of our hopes, but also of our thanksgivings for the ordinary, everyday gifts that we often overlook. We invited each of our kids to place in the center of our Advent wreath one ordinary object that represented something of deep value and meaning. The wreath began to look quite ridiculous, covered with our little knickknacks. One daughter contributed a tiny plastic zebra (a gift from a New York friend); I added the flannel-wrapped beanbag that I popped into the microwave to warm sore muscles, tense from the work of moving and praying for my kids. Our Advent wreath that year was not something anyone would ever share on Pinterest. At the same time, I’m not sure it has ever looked more beautiful.

The quirky objects cluttering our family altar reminded me of the apostle Paul’s words to the Colossians:

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. (Col. 1:3-6)

For the remaining weeks leading up to the great festival of Christmas, we’d gather around our absurd little wreath to pray. Sometimes our prayers consisted of only one word, the rest unspoken as we listened for the comfort of a silent God-With-Us, sitting among us in our own version of a hillside cave. We sat in the dark kitchen, heavy with unmet expectations and uncertain outcomes, praying that the Messiah would come to us, to this messy dining table, and be born again in us. We gave thanks for the ordinary, sometimes peculiar ways, he daily made his goodness known to us, and we believed in the absurdity of hope that he would do it again.

Contributed By tamara hill murphy portrait Tamara Hill Murphy

Tamara Hill Murphy, a blogger and freelance writer, lives with her husband Brian in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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