“I’m not ready for Christmas.” This was my immediate thought in early November when I noticed that several houses were already displaying Christmas lights on their porches and in their front yards. At this moment, I was reminded of why I love Advent: it’s all about waiting.
A liturgical season in the Christian tradition, Advent begins on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving and extends to Christmas Eve. It’s a season of anticipation, during which we recall the humble birth of Jesus the Savior in Bethlehem. Within cultural Christmas practices, advent calendars are popular—those countdown calendars to Christmas that offer daily gifts or goodies. In the church, the Advent season appears unsensational, especially when compared to the twinkle of lights on trees, the array of musical concerts, and festive gatherings with family and friends. But is it? Is the Advent season for anything other than waiting for Christmas day? I propose that it can challenge us to the continuous and transformative work of justice in our world.
Advent is often in stark contrast to the glitter and pizazz of Christmas (e.g., cue Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas”). Instead of rocking around a Christmas tree, Advent music in my faith tradition of the Episcopal church and in fellow denominations is quiet and melancholy with a long-suffering message of hope for a world renewed. The Old Testament lessons feature the convicting and apocalyptic words of the prophet Isaiah, passages that serve as bold warnings to God’s people to reevaluate their faithfulness to God and their pursuit of justice. As people in the United States spend millions of dollars on gifts or parties in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Sunday morning scripture readings send a bold message about compassion for the displaced, marginalized, and oppressed.
Between the tinsel and the traditions, the seasons of Advent and Christmas can be a wearisome and puzzling time of the year. For some college students, winter break means returning to family dynamics that are wildly different from those portrayed in Hallmark movies. The holidays can also intensify feelings of grief as people recall treasured memories of loved ones no longer in this world. The emotional stress from relationships can extend to financial stress because of the consumerist pressures of gift-giving.
For the authors of The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations, Advent can be a season to recalibrate our hearts and minds for the justice work we are called to do. Primarily rooted in the words of the prophet Isaiah, the daily meditations in this volume call the reader to consider the powers and principalities of oppression and how we can respond as agents of healing. The book of Isaiah is a bold call and response to the people of Judah, whose lives were stable under King Uzziah but who became complacent amidst injustice across the land. Isaiah utters great warnings against the false prosperity in Judah. As the authors write in The Advent of Justice, “When covenantal life has been structured to serve the interests of the rich at the expense of the poor, then this is, in fact, a covenant with death.”
In their meditations, the authors draw parallels between the ancient and modern worlds. Like the people of Judah, I can become complacent by allowing my privilege to make me unaware of the injustices around me. For example, I could easily accept half-hearted legislation as true progress toward equality. In the United States, we proclaim that we live in a land of prosperity and justice for all. The question to ask, then, is, “Justice for whom?”
Advent can be an opportunity to consider what justice means in our daily lives and how we are closely linked to our local, national, and global communities. Advent can also serve as a parallel for continuous social justice work because the waiting in this season is not passive but rather a constant act of vigilance. Envisioning a world without inequity, racism, homophobia, sexism, and environmental injustice is difficult, yet the biblical readings throughout Advent encourage us to pursue justice with courage, bravery, and faithfulness. Isaiah 2:4 describes a renewed world as one that is cultivated by plowshares rather than swords. The call forward is one of hope through the arrival of Jesus as a peacemaker, comforter, and healer, and to the flourishing of humankind.
Advent and vocational exploration share an emphasis on pausing in the quietness to discern. This four-week church season can serve as a snapshot of how to live throughout the year as we reflect deeply on questions about self, purpose, and the world around us. This is especially true for college students who experience their undergraduate years as a liminal season: awaiting the end of the semester while anticipating the next, planning a new internship, and looking forward to graduation. Underneath the surface of this waiting may be the added pressure to decide on life after graduation in an uncertain world. The frenetic rush forward threatens students’ practices of reflection and contemplation.
As evidenced by Tim Clydesdale’s The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation, pausing to engage in conversation with students about vocation can have long-lasting and far-reaching implications. Our world is hungry for leaders who are called to serve justice in all spheres of life. Whether it’s choosing to vote with your dollar by shopping locally this Christmas, providing meals, or caring for those who grieve, there are hundreds of ways for us and our students to discern what justice looks like in this season and the months that follow.
As the number of Christmas lights multiplies across town, the light from each tiny bulb pierces the darkness. Even though I’ll likely never be “ready for Christmas,” I’m reminded that Advent calls me to reflect and consider how incremental, continuous, and faithful work for justice can pierce the darkness of oppression. The enormity of injustice may feel paralyzing, but words from Clarissa Pinkola Estés can help:
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts—adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take ‘everyone on Earth’ to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.”Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Letter to a Young Activist During Troubled Times
May we walk through the Advent season with hopeful anticipation, reminded that humble narratives like the birth of Jesus can be radical stories that point to justice and peace.
Lindsay Monihen is Director of Literacy LEAPS, a state-funded literacy grant through the School of Education at Shawnee State University in Ohio. She previously worked as the director of student advising and support services in the College of Professional Studies. Before moving to Ohio, she worked at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, where her portfolio focused on campus ministry and on diversity and inclusion. She is currently working on a dissertation at Azusa Pacific University that explores the development of a sense of calling among undergraduate women raised and educated in Appalachia. For other posts by Lindsay, click here.