I know it’s cliche but it’s true for me: Christmas time is one of my favorite times of the year. For me, it’s filled with memories of cookies and carols, lights and laughter, music and magic--basically all of the kitschy things that my heart could ever want. As I celebrate the last Christmas of my 20s, I keep finding myself drawn to this season; yet, it’s for more than just the fun parts of Christmas now.
While I still could not imagine life without all the kitsch of the season, I am learning to love the darkness of Advent. I didn’t grow up with Advent as a thing (except for those calendars my mom got us every year with chocolate for each day). Although I was very familiar with the popularized Christmas story of Jesus’ birth, which my Nanny (i.e., my grandma) made sure that I knew. It wasn’t until I was an associate pastor at a Pentecostal church after college that I began to explore Advent as a practice.
I don’t even remember how I heard about Advent, but I do remember going to Publix (best grocery store in the South if you’re ever down that way!) and picking up a large white candle, three purple candles, and one pink candle. That night, I was leading our Wednesday night children’s program and I was excited to make an Advent wreath with the kids and explore the meaning together.
We started out by turning off all the lights in the room and lighting that first purple candle. I explained to the kids that each candle had a meaning: hope, peace, joy, and love. I still remember the image of that single candle burning in the darkness. There was something soothing about it. Peace, joy, and love were not yet lit but the purple hope candle was present.
As I look back at my life over this past year (and even this past decade) there were many moments where it felt like I was surrounded by darkness and all that I had to hold onto was hope. Hope that life wouldn’t always be that way. Hope that clarity would come. Hope that healing was possible. Hope that there would be enough grace for my mistakes. Hope that I would find my way forward when all the doors seemed to close.
The last decade has contained my greatest struggles: coming out as queer in a conservative Christian context, getting a divorce, and losing a boyfriend to addiction and overdose. I haven’t always known how to move forward. And here I am on the other side of the decade. I survived. And I would even say that there are many moments when I actually feel that I am thriving.
It has taken work to get to where I am--a lot of work! But before the work ever started, there was that light of hope. It was because I had hope that I was even able to move forward and do the healing work. And that hope was not just something that I conjured up in the darkness. It was a gift from God.
By that, I don’t mean to say that God magically showed up in my life and said, “Here’s hope!” What I do mean by this is that I found hope in the loving relationships that surrounded me. I found hope in the testimonies of others that I read on blogs and in books. I found hope in spiritual leaders who heard my stories of struggle and gently said, “I promise you, it will not always feel this way.” I found hope in community where others embraced me, took me out for coffee, and opened their own hearts to me. And finding hope made all the difference. It was the doorway for me to the other Advent candles--peace, joy, and love.
We live in a world where hope can feel distant and even foolish. So, I’m wondering what is your relationship with hope right now? Are you feeling distant from hope? Maybe you’ve made a clean break with hope and decided it’s not for you after the last blow that life dealt you. Perhaps you are considering whether or not hope is for you. Or maybe you’re filled with hope.
Wherever you are, it’s likely difficult to figure out how to move forward. For those who are full of hope, it can be vulnerable to share that with those who are less inclined to join you in your hope. And for those who don’t have hope or are barely holding onto a shred of it, I am sure that sharing that with others can be just as vulnerable--if not more. If you’re like me, your expectations of yourself are sometimes so high that you have a hard time admitting that you’re not feeling hopeful. And that’s okay.
I think that there’s a way forward for all of us. What if we could learn to incarnate ourselves into the experiences of others when they do share with us what is happening? What if we built our tolerance instead of our judgment? Of course, this is easier said than done. The truth remains: sometimes, the only spark of hope that we need to move forward is an empathic connection with someone else.
This is the essence of what we are hoping for in Advent: God with us. How do we experience God with us if it is not through one another? Of course we can know God in many ways, but our experience of each other is one of the most tangible ways for this to happen. Jesus taught us this. If we can nurture empathic connection with ourselves, one another, and creation, I believe that hope, peace, joy, and love can flourish. And in this flourishing, we will see and know that God is with us.
Friends, my prayer for us this Advent is that wherever we find ourselves in life, may we both find and create the empathic connections that would spark hope in us and others.
Sarah is a Brooklyn-based music educator & musician who's always learning new instruments. Originally from Long Island, Sarah came to NYC to study at NYU, then Columbia. She's passionate about equity and access in education, especially arts education, and has worked for numerous non-profits who share this vision. Sarah's excited help shape a culture at CG for recovering Evangelicals & Christians that brings everyone to the table.