I’ve been reading a lot of Fleming Rutledge lately. Last Christmas, I bought her compilation of Advent sermons, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Although we come from different traditions (Rutledge is an Episcopalian priest, and I’m a minister in a Baptist church), I’ve come to resonate with much of what she has to say, and twelve-year-old Amy would probably say something like, “I want to be like her when I grow up.”
Although I’ve had this compilation for almost a year, I didn’t pick it up until October. But the Lord knew what October, and November, and December would hold. And so, on the night my grandmother died, as my husband was at the church gathering things in my office, I asked him to grab Rutledge’s book, in case I had a few moments to read as I began to think about Advent preparations and finish our Advent devotional guide at the church.
The most striking sermon in the compilation, to me, is one entitled “Advent Begins in the Dark.” This year, Advent began in the dark. It began in the darkness of October, on a Saturday night when I was making soup in the Instant Pot and baking paleo blondies, with a call from my mother telling me my grandmother had died. I got the same kind of call on the same date last year, with news that my grandfather had passed. My grandmother had been very sick since June. We didn’t expect that she would make it out of ICU, but she did. We didn’t expect that she would make it out of the hospital, but she did. But she wasn’t well enough to go home, so for three months we watched and waited as she continued to decline in a nursing home after she had made a decision to pursue palliative care. After she died, I told Matt there was a bit of relief in some ways, because it was like I had been mourning her death every day since June 22, waiting for what was inevitable.
So we drove to North Carolina, and we grieved, and we remembered my grandmother’s life with her siblings and grandkids, and we made final arrangements, and we gathered the few personal possessions she had at the nursing home. We walked the streets of Forest City and saw the trees waiting with expectation for fall, to burst forth in color and light before they, too, would fall to the ground and die.
And we made our way back to Alabama, and we drove to the hospital for a second checkup, and the doctor couldn’t find the heartbeat that was beating so strongly two weeks prior, and she calmly sent us to the better ultrasound, to the more advanced machine, but I knew. I knew. And Advent began in the dark.
And we went home to watch and to wait for miscarriage to begin. And close friends came and brought food and flowers and fellowship, and they sat with us in the sadness and the sorrow. And the bleeding eventually started, and it was as if it would never stop. I hemorrhaged the loss of a grandmother, and the loss of a baby, and the loss of people moving. And it would be easy to say that there will be another child, but who could promise that except the Lord Himself, who seemed to be in the business of taking, and not giving in those days?
And we tried to find a new normal, after grief. Eventually, the bleeding stopped. Eventually, I made it through a day without sobbing. Eventually, our loss wasn’t the first thing I thought about when I woke up. Eventually, seeing pregnant women at Trader Joe’s didn’t take my breath away. And we made it through Thanksgiving, through the holiday when we would have known the gender, when we would have proudly proclaimed our pregnancy to the world. But there was no loud announcement, there was no reveal, there was no declaration of news bursting with joy. There were only four ultrasound pictures and several positive pregnancy tests and sympathy cards hidden in a drawer. There is no bump on my belly, just a necklace given as a gift by a dear friend in memory of the child who made his or her home there, and who is now at home in heaven.
And Advent began in the dark. Theologically speaking, Advent always begins in the dark. It is not a season in the church calendar where we prepare for Christmas, where we pretend as if Jesus never came to earth as the Bethlehem baby. No, Advent is the season of preparation for Christ to come again. It is the season where we wait with expectation and longing for Christ to come again and to make all that is wrong right. All of our life is lived in Advent waiting. In the weightiness of life, we wait for the day when, in the words of C.S. Lewis, it will be always Christmas and never winter. There is brokenness all around, and if you don’t feel the brokenness this year, chances are, you will feel it another year. And so Advent began in the dark.
Grief is a complicated thing. It is one thing to grieve the grandmother I knew so dearly. The woman who made potato pancakes, who taught me how to dry apples before eating dried fruit was trendy, who spent Thanksgiving at the beach with all of her grandkids while her husband went fishing day and night. The woman who worked at NSA before my mom was born, who we now joke was perhaps a spy and we never knew it. The woman who took me home from the hospital, with my mom. The woman who met me at the bus stop in the afternoons, who smelled like Snuggle fabric softener, who made the best omelets I’ve ever eaten. The woman I would call most mornings on my way to work. When I get in my car now, there is a still small sadness in the silence. Sometimes, I pick up my phone and just briefly forget that she is no longer living, but I remember quickly, and the grief comes crashing in.
It is another thing to grieve a child lost in the womb. A child I knew about for five weeks, a child we took (unknowingly) to see dear friends in Virginia, a child we took to a wedding and to my beloved hometown fair, a child who walked those streets of Forest City with us, a child who went with me to pick up groceries on Fridays and spent afternoons cleaning the house and putting up laundry and who even did some early Christmas shopping with me. A child who caused heartburn and nausea with every bite of food I would put into my body. A child I grew to love more and more every day, even without knowing a gender or a name. And now I hold other friends’ babies, and I read other kids stories, and I grieve that we will never experience that with this baby. Perhaps with another living child, but not that baby. And we know that, for this baby, it is far better for him or her to be in heaven, in the presence of the Lord. They are missing out on nothing in earth – to be in the presence of the Lord is far better for them. But we grieve because of the moments we will miss – ultrasounds and kicks and births and birthday celebrations and adding stockings to the mantle and baby’s first ornaments and reading books at night and playing catch.
I believe God is at work in the midst of the darkness. He broke into the world on a night of darkness, to a people groaning under Roman rule. He came to bring us out of the darkness. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. But Advent still begins in the darkness. It still begins in the seasons of crying out to the Lord, “How long?” How long will You wait? How long will You tarry? How long will You allow injustice and evil? How long will we grieve?
And in the midst of the darkness, there are no easy answers. There are no promises of other children, or promises that we will not have another miscarriage, or promises that another loved one will not leave this earth, or promises that the rest of life will be easy because of this particular suffering. Certainly there are the promises that God is working out everything according to His perfect plan, for His glory, and certainly that is a comfort, but it doesn’t mean that there is not sorrow and grief today. No, the promise that is whispered in the dark is the promise that God is with us in the dark. That God put in flesh and came to live in our darkness. That He took on humanity and knows what it is to grieve. That He knows the fragility of the womb because He Himself lived there.
And the promise whispered is that darkness will not have the last word, even if today, it feels like there will always only ever be darkness. That a day is coming when those in Christ will be with Him face to face, in a place where there is no more darkness, where there is no need for sun or moon because the Lord Himself will be all the light God’s people need. On that day, we will see our loved ones again. On that day, we will meet the child we longed to get to hold in this life. But better than that, on that day, we will behold God Himself in His glory, and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
If you are feeling the weight of Advent waiting in this season, if you are experiencing the reality of darkness, know that you are not alone in your suffering as believers around you walk through all sorts of grief and troubles and tribulations – but more than that, know that God took on flesh in Jesus and came to us, to dwell with us in the darkness.