Advent & Restlessness

For an Advent devotional, I’ve been using God is In the Manger, excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermons and letters. Below is a profound insight I came across. I encourage you to read this slowly and really take it in:

Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them and people who look up with reverence to the greatest in the world.

Thus Advent can be celebrated only by those whose souls give them no peace, who know that they are poor and incomplete, and who sense something of the greatness that is supposed to come, before which they can only bow in humble timidity, waiting until he inclines himself toward us—the Holy One himself, God in the child in the manger. God is coming; the Lord Jesus is coming; Christmas is coming. Rejoice, O Christendom!

Only the restless can truly celebrate Advent. For someone whose brain runs a million miles an hour, whose mental processing and angst run non-stop, who lives with much spiritual, emotional, and existential restlessness, this gives me hope, even for a moment.

The Church season of Advent is meant to be a time of waiting, of gathering and increasing tension before the explosion of joy, feasting, and gift-giving that is the season of Christmas. The emotional tenor of Advent really is uneasiness: a sense that things are not what they should be or–dare we hope?–will be, and this is precisely why God came among us in Jesus.

In this point in history, all of our lives exist in Advent waiting. There is a promise from God about his ultimate intentions and actions toward this world, and he has not yet delivered on that promise. Cosmic Christmas is not here yet.

And as Bonhoeffer points out, one cannot truly wait with eagerness and trust in what has not yet come without there being some restlessness in the way things are now. If you are fully confident, fully at ease, fully just “fine” then you are not waiting, and that is not hope. Your confidence is rooted in something imminent and seen, not transcendent and hoped for.

“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Rom 8.24)

But none of us are truly, fully confident or fine, are we? Rather, we are distracted. Whether it is politics, sex, Netflix, food, social media, “deconstruction”, existential angst, or even acts of piety–we numb ourselves to the restlessness existing in all our souls.

The unease Bonhoeffer talks about is not a special mental state or personality wiring that some people have and others don’t–it is seeing reality for what it is. The reality both around us and within us.

Restlessness, a lack of peace in the soul, is the appropriate and natural response to feeling the weight of things as they actually are. We don’t need to find or manufacture this sense. It exists within us if we would just listen. Turn off the carols and TV and podcasts and become a friend of silence and prayers of old that give language to things you did not know were present in your soul.

Advent restlessness and angst is not just anxiety. While anxiety too often gives birth to hopelessness or disconnectedness, Christian restlessness gives birth to hope. Or at least that’s the goal and fight. That’s what makes it hard.

What distinguishes the two is less how it feels in the moment and more the fruit it bears in one’s life and heart. In fact, perhaps all Christian restlessness begins as anxiety and it depends on how we respond to it.

When we feel the swelling sadness or racing thoughts, is the reflex of our soul to cast ourselves onto the God who has come and who we hope will come again? Or do we run to anger, division, despair, or numbing? Does our discomfort, uneasiness, frustration, and unsettled hearts press us more closely to God, or drive us further away?

The hope and encouragement here is that this restlessness in our souls is the raw material of hope, if we would just listen to it, feel it, and attend to it.

Let’s be clear, though. This tension is not something we can or should live in at all times. Netflix, politics, sex, food, etc. are all good and holy things that can reveal their own aspects of reality as it is. That is why the Christian Calendar is so wise.

We have times like Advent and Lent to sit with our anxious hearts and listen to its cries, followed by times like Christmas and Eater for feasting and joy. In those seasons we listen less to the whispers of our own souls and more to the shouts and songs of our God. We turn our focus from what the world is not, to what the world will be. And we sing and eat and laugh.

We cannot feel all the things at all the times. I continue to try and grow in that knowledge. There is a (Church) season for all aspects of our human condition.

But right now, in Advent, is the time for restlessness. For angst. For tension in our inner lives. For lament and loss and confession and sadness. This is the only way we can truly celebrate Advent–and Christmas, for that matter.

May we rest well in our restlessness. Happy Advent.

[image credit: “Melancholy” by Odilon Redon]


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