“The deepest dark is where grace goes to be reborn.”
- Alexander Shaia
Advent greetings, my friend.
This month’s letter is all about advent, my number one all-time favorite no-holds-barred season. I have always been an advent person. The magic of Christmas, for me, was found entirely in the four weeks leading up to Christmas – Advent. My mom always made a big deal out of Advent. We had our advent wreath and we had advent “services” every Sunday night where we sat around our advent wreath, lit the appropriate advent candles, prayed advent prayers, read advent scripture readings, and sang advent hymns.
There’s a difference, you know. Between advent and Christmas. It’s hard to see in today’s culture of nonstop Christmas marketing that starts at 11:59pm on October 31st, but the season of Christmas as historically celebrated begins on December 25th – Christmas Day – and lasts until January 6th. But before the clock strikes 12:00am on December 25th, it’s advent, friends. This time belongs to advent.
Why, you ask, does this matter? What the frickety frack is advent anyway?
It’s sitting through the dark before the dawn.
It’s going through the pain before the healing.
It’s for waiting.
It’s like the meaninglessness of celebrating Easter without having gone through Good Friday. I mean, if you don’t have the crucifixion, then what’s the point of the resurrection?
I admit, when I was a little girl my excitement for advent wasn’t entirely based upon my anticipation of the birth of Jesus. I was excited for presents. I was excited for two weeks off from school. I was excited to drive around and look at Christmas lights. I also loved Christmas music with a passion, so I was excited to hear Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, and I was excited to watch “While You Were Sleeping” with my mom while we decorated our tree.
Some (maybe even most) of my favorite memories with my mom are from advent. She nailed it.
But there was always something in me (again, thanks to my mom I’m sure) that sensed the magic – the “there’s something really important happening here” – of advent. In the prayers and the readings and the songs, there was a sense of anticipation for something people were desperate for. There was language about darkness and night and lighting candles as an act of hope and persevering and waiting and having faith that grace – liberation, salvation, freedom, healing, anything that will get us out from where we are now – is coming.
You may recall from the first letter that my household is a recovering household. Just over six months ago my husband took his last drink and last weekend he received his “six months” chip at his meeting. Before that was, well, advent.
In her book, Codependent No More, Melody Beattie writes,
“You cannot live with active alcoholism without being profoundly affected. Any human being who is bombarded with what you’ve been bombarded with is to be commended for sheer survival. You deserve a medal for the mere fact that you’re around to tell the story.”
Living with active alcoholism is a deep, deep dark. It is isolating and profoundly lonely, and it is terrifying. One year ago was my deepest, darkest Christmas. So deep and dark, in fact, that I almost didn’t want to acknowledge that it was Christmas this time around. But then I remembered something. It isn’t Christmas yet anyway, it’s advent, and I can do advent. I’m really good at advent.
Last year my son and I attended a Christmas Eve service with my father and my in-laws, because “church” has never been my husband’s thing and I decided long ago to let it lie. We returned to my house after worship and I immediately knew what had happened. I immediately knew it was time to kick it into high gear in order to cover up the fact that my husband was drunk, on Christmas Eve, again, and it was my job to make sure no one noticed a god damn thing. To put on a happy face. To make sure my son had a great Christmas. To smooth everything over. To pretend I wasn’t dying inside.
I can’t even look at pictures from last Christmas. They make me want to throw up. Literally.
Because that was my life. That was every time we were with people. That was every time we were home. The amount of energy I put into making sure everything “was okay,” that no one noticed, that my son didn’t notice, that my husband didn’t kill himself or anyone else, that we still had a clean house and food to eat, that our bills were paid, that we still looked – on the outside – somewhat okay… it damn near killed me.
And I kept waiting. Waiting for someone to notice. For someone to save me.
The past few years were one long advent, except without the benefit of knowing Christmas was only four weeks away. I had no advent calendar to count down the days until the light would come. I only had the darkness. And yet, I kept waiting.
Because advent. I get advent.
My opening quote this month is from a Catholic priest named Alexander Shaia, whose voice is like a balm. He’s a frequent guest on Rob Bell’s podcast, “The Robcast,” and I highly recommend every single episode. In his latest interview there he said that quote. As soon as I heard it I knew it in my bones to be true, because that’s what I’ve always known about advent. I’ve always felt it. Advent – the deepest, darkest time of the year – is the breeding ground for grace. This is where God does God’s most important, most powerful work.
Glennon Doyle says, “first the pain, then the rising.” She’s an advent person, too, I bet.
I love advent so much because I believe so strongly in the redemptive thrust of the universe. That God is so deeply invested and involved and a part of creation (and we humans are a part of that creation) that God would enter into our existence so intimately and humbly in order to take our hand, to squeeze it, to see us, and to turn on the light.
The thing about codependency is that it tells us just as many lies as the alcohol tells the compulsive drinker, and one of the biggest is that it’s our job to make sure no one notices, that everyone is okay, that it’s not the drinker’s fault. Except that in your soul you know it’s not okay, no one is okay, it’s definitely the alcohol’s fault, and for the love of God and all that is holy will someone please notice. Because codependency blocks you from saying the words out loud, you scream it with your heart every time you look into someone’s eyes. Please notice me. Please notice me. Please save me.
Someone did, thank God. And here we are. And I believe that was my husband’s experience, too. That he couldn’t say the words or even access the thoughts or feelings to begin with because alcohol had done such an effective job of burying them down, but he needed to be noticed, too. He needed someone to see him and take his hand, too.
So while a huge part of the world celebrates the most famous incarnation this month, in our house we’re celebrating a lesser known but no less important one - the incarnation of recovery.
And I can sit in darkness now without despair, when I find myself in it, because I have a new kind of advent calendar. It’s not the kind that counts down to a certain date, no. Rather, it’s a knowing, a hope. A belief that light will come, because darkness does not last forever.
It will not last forever, friend. Grace is coming. Grace is being born.
Until next time.