The best Advent movie of all time, in my humble opinion, is A Christmas Story, Jean Shepard’s delightful paean to small-town Indiana in the 1940’s and, in particular, to the longing and the yearning that all of us, but particularly children, possess as we wait for the arrival of Christmas—“lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, around which the entire kid year revolve[s].” The narrator/protagonist, Ralphie Parker, 9, spends the entire movie in quiet desperation—quiet, that is, until he’s asked what he wants for Christmas. Then, spewing forth like an avalanche, come Ralphie’s answers, again and again, accompanied by all the pent-up, anxiety-producing, desire-festering fervor he can muster: “I want an official Red Rider, carbine-action, 200-shot, range-model air rifle, with a compass in the stock.” And in those breathless moments we get a glimpse of what it means to long for something as we’ve never longed for something before.
But isn’t this just childish fancy? Shouldn’t we instinctively reject such immature enthusiasm where matters of serious import—such as helping congregations experience a better understanding of God’s coming to us through a fuller appreciation of Advent—are at stake? Not if the exhortations of Christ matter to us (cf. Matthew 19:14). In fact, putting ourselves in a child’s snowshoes might be a good way to begin to come to grips with the magnitude of the message of Advent. Christopher Hill, in Holidays and Holy Nights, says that Advent calls on believers
to take seriously the knowledge of childhood—knowledge from the quiet that winter nights lay over the world and the dark purity of the sky and the polished stars. It is about what you knew in the silence of the waiting woods and in the twinkling white lights that shivered and flickered on bushes and trees as if the world were putting on elegant clothes. . . .
This quiet but electric expectancy gives us a hint of what it means to wait for Christ. “It’s what I always wanted,” we hope to hear children say on Christmas morning. My guess is that what they always wanted—and what we always want—comes earlier. What children feel during Advent isn’t just the squirming impatience for a time that’s not here yet. They also sense that daily life is being slowly transformed into something more interesting, something with a story to it. . . .
This feeling may be caused by the prospect of boxes under the tree. If so, it’s a striking example of how something very big can be induced by a very small and humble stimulus, like the grain of sand in an oyster that makes a pearl. . . . The magic of Advent is like going to bed in a familiar world and waking up in a story. This is part of what we mean by adventus, waiting for Christ.
That said, for those for whom childhood was painful, perhaps—or for those whose personality or temperament will not allow them to glean anything of significance from a spiritual excavation of the past—trying to juxtapose an understanding of Advent based on the excitement inherent in youthful Yuletide yearning might prove fruitless. For these souls, tapping into the angst inherent in the human condition might be the best approach—for, as Maria Boulding acknowledges in The Coming of God, all of us have deep, unmet desires that can point us to Emmanuel, the God who is with us:
If you want God, and long for union with him, yet sometimes wonder what that means or whether it can mean anything at all, you are already walking with the God who comes. If you are at times so weary and involved with the struggle of living that you have no strength even to want him, yet are still dissatisfied that you don’t, you are already keeping Advent in your life. If you have ever had an obscure intuition that the truth of things is somehow better, greater, more wonderful than you deserve or desire, that the touch of God in your life stills you by its gentleness, that there is a mercy beyond anything you could ever suspect, you are already drawn into the central mystery of salvation.
Your hope is not a mocking dream; God creates in human hearts a huge desire and a sense of need, because he wants to fill them with the gift of himself. It is because his self-sharing love is there first, forestalling any response or prayer from our side, that such hope can be in us. We cannot hope until we know, however obscurely, that there is something to hope for; if we have had no glimpse of a vision, we cannot conduct our lives with vision. And yet we do: there is hope in us, and longing, because grace was there first. God’s longing for us is the spring of ours for him.
Pascal referred to that which is expressed by Boulding as the God-shaped void in all of us. It is present in the unbeliever, of course, but it also is present, at least to an extent, in the believer as well, for we are strangers in a strange land, this world is not our home, and we won’t have that God-shaped void completely filled this side of heaven. I believe that a historically accurate approach to Advent can speak to these issues for our congregations, and I plan to look at the history behind the season next week.
The Lord be with you as you wait on Him!