Kuyper Professor Allison Backous’ Article, Bent to Wonder Published in Duke University Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership
December 1, 2011
After recalling the frenetic pace of past Christmas seasons, Kuyper Professor commits to celebrate Advent as it should be—a time to embrace desire and hope.
A couple of Christmases ago, I had grand plans to send homemade cards -- impressive creations that I printed on fancy card stock, folded, and stamped with snowflakes and glittering trees. I took them to work for some last-minute touches, but on my way into the building I walked into a gust of wind, which blew the cards right out of my hands.
Hours of painstaking work -- gone. And three weeks into the Advent season, I simply had no more time to re-create my cards. I could only sigh, the cards twirling down the highway.
I knew that this was a sign of something. My frenetic energy dumped into the Christmas season was a symbol of spiritual anxiety, of misplaced desire. This year, at the onset of the Advent season, I want to approach that anxiety differently.
I want, as the early saints of the church professed, to approach this season of Christ’s nativity with reverence and right attention. To behold the incarnation of God with more awe than glitter. More wonder than vague, distracted celebration.
As in the season of Lent, Advent comes upon us as a call to re-enter the ancient story of our faith. We are invited -- and commanded -- to recall the birth of Christ. And in that remembering, we reorient ourselves to our own time: we await Christ’s final return, the restoration of the kingdom.
This not only contrasts with the consumerism that surrounds us but also names our own eager anticipation: in our lives, and in the life of our world, we are waiting for Christ to return, for things to be made new and right.
This is what we light candles for -- or, in my case, Christmas lights. The white lights I will string outside my house are a simple enough sign of the goodness that I have been given and the restoration that I long for, in myself, in the lives of the ones I love, in the life of the world. We long together and celebrate together, and Advent is the time in the church calendar for us to embrace both desire and hope.
But the ways in which I desire and hope need a different shape this Advent. I have a history of turning my longings into Christmas lists, my celebrations into vain, prideful tasks. Greed takes hold of my hope and, as the poet Luci Shaw writes, sterilizes the hope I carry into something bland and self-serving, closed to the bursting, shocking incarnation of God.
If Advent and Lent mirror each other in any way, I must also see this season as a time of watchfulness, of hope purified, my heart made patient and ready for beholding the God I claim to long for.
The God who, as John puts it, “became flesh and dwelt among us.” The God who, in the words of Athanasius, “would make death to disappear from [us] as utterly as straw from fire.” The God whose incarnation holds -- and redirects -- what it is we hope for, whose love both shocks and saves us.
This Advent, I’m exploring ways that will, I pray, reorient the habits of my heart so that I may celebrate Christmas with a joy that is more sober, less busy. I’m eating more simply, forgoing the mounds of chocolate that will inevitably glut my faculty lounge. I’m investing in simple gifts to fight my own urge to overbuy, and overcompensate, for the fragile loves I bear for my family and friends. I’m going to try spending less time online and more time in prayer.
In Advent, we light candles and sing songs about preparing room in our hearts for Christ. And if the story of our faith is truer than the story of media or consumerism or the anxieties that wrack us, it must make us do something different.
If Advent hope is eschatological -- if it points us to the joy of the kingdom -- why shouldn’t I prepare myself to encounter that hope with a clearer eye and a truer word of praise?
This Advent, I’m journeying toward the nativity in a different way than I have before. I wish to forget the frenzy of homemade cards and multiple pageants and instead listen for the ways in which our Lord will make room in us for his work, his care, his very presence.
In that preparation, may we be watchful. May we be bent to wonder.