Do you feel the world is broken?
So begins “Is He Worthy?” by Andrew Peterson, which has became a much-loved classic in Christian homes around the world (including ours).
That tangible sense of brokenness, of things not being as they should be, is something we all rub up against daily. Sin, sickness, death. Whether we are facing an instance of the mundane and annoying or the harrowing and horrific, my wife and I are likely to ask one another, “Do you feel the world is broken?”
And given the last 18 months especially, no one can escape that reality. For most of us these have been the strangest years in living memory. We have been through collective trauma, and nobody has come out unscathed.
Broken at Christmas
Of course, we’re arriving at that time of year when every shop and website is counting down to Christmas. Commercials with sleigh-bell soundtracks blare out from the TV and radio. Coffee chains start to push overpriced sugar-laced drinks in supposedly festive cups. But deep down, for many the idea of celebrating at Christmas will feel like a complete gear-shift.
That’s not to say we don’t buy into it. Self-distraction has always been a pretty effective coping strategy. Author Tish Harrison Warren puts it like this: “We suffer from a collective consumerist mania that demands we remain optimistic, shiny, happy and having fun, fun, fun.”
In other words, Mr. Peterson, yes, we do feel the world is broken, and we don’t like it—and so our collective tendency is to downplay or deflect those feelings pretty quickly.
We do feel the world is broken, and we don’t like it—and so our collective tendency is to downplay or deflect those feelings.
But after the most unsettling of years, this is why I think the season of Advent is such a gift to us. And it’s why I’ve been grateful to find Advent hope in a surprising place.
But let’s back up a bit. What’s the deal with Advent anyway? It’s thought that the rhythm of marking this season began as fourth-century European Christians put their spin on the early church’s tradition of encouraging new converts to spend time preparing for baptism. Taking its name from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “arrival” (itself derived from the Greek parousia), this preparation season matched that of the traditional time of Lent, which led to Easter baptisms. It was an opportunity for new Christians to both look back to the long-foretold first coming of the Messiah, and in turn to learn to look forward to his coming again.
Today many mark Advent from the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, after which the celebration of the Incarnation, the “12 days of Christmas,” occurs. We hunger and then we feast. Of course, the concept of marking a “Christian year,” weaving Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost into an annual calendar, isn’t commanded in the Bible. Yet many churches and denominations have found it a helpful way to engage in the various theological emphases of those historical events, and to see them as part of one narrative that shapes our collective lives.
Leaning into the Cosmic Ache
So why bother with Advent? That’s like asking why we need to long for Christ’s return. Harrison Warren again expresses it perfectly: “To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime.”
By focusing our hearts on the first and second appearances of Jesus Christ, Advent is an opportunity to face up to the darkness in order to appreciate the light.
Advent is an opportunity to face up to the darkness in order to appreciate the light.
Rather than distracting ourselves with consumeristic denial strategies, we can face up to this brokenness. The world might try to dull the pain of our suffering, but the refreshing news is that Scripture never does.
So where might we go this Advent? Typically Advent devotionals walk us through the birth narratives in the gospels, or the classic Old Testament prophecies of Christ’s coming. But a couple of years ago at our church we spent the season moving slowly through a seemingly surprising portion of Scripture: the book of Ruth.
The book of Ruth doesn’t hold back from the reality of suffering. It begins with death, grief and a famine. Shockingly the cupboards are bare in Bethlehem, tragic for a town whose very name meant “house of bread.” The central character, Naomi, has to face the brokenness of our world—a world that, just like Israel in her day, has rejected its Creator. God’s people were on a downward spiral of disobedience and idolatry (Ruth 1:1; Judges 21:25), and these events were a warning that not everything was well in their relationship with God.
But into the dark streets of Bethlehem, an everlasting light shines. Embodied in the dazzling yet surprising characters of Ruth and Boaz, we discovered afresh the steadfast kindness of God. In a world that aches with sin, this story liberates us from the exhausting deception that all was endless cheer.
Story Behind the Story
I became convinced that Ruth’s message was a precious and refreshing gift for Advent, and now those reflections have been published as a daily devotional, Finding Hope Under Bethlehem Skies. As the 20th-century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” If anyone fits that category, it’s Naomi.
And as she and Ruth and Boaz anticipate, the narrative looks beyond its own story. Centuries later, under those same Bethlehem skies, hope bursts into the darkness in the birth of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:5). We all know the Christmas story, but Ruth gives us the story behind the Christmas story.
Marking Advent might not have been part of your personal or church tradition. But ultimately it’s not about us needing Advent. What we all need is Christ. As the old carol puts it, “Yet in the dark streets shineth, an everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” This Advent, open the book of Ruth and find hope in the darkest of nights.