By: Scott Armstrong
Have you ever seen the Christmas movie, The Polar Express? It was a mainstay in our household when our kids were little, and we still watch it most years when December comes. Without giving away the whole plot, there’s a seemingly peripheral character who has a few scenes that are hard to forget for my wife and me. This little boy is literally from the other side of the tracks. He is poor and shy and is reticent to get caught up in all the hoopla of Christmas. At one point, he lowers his head and says, “Christmas just doesn’t work out for me.”
Have you ever felt that way? Everyone is celebrating, and you know you should be, too, but you’re just not feeling it. Maybe family dynamics are…well…complicated. Perhaps the last year has come with more mourning than partying. Maybe Christmas reminds you of what you don’t have instead of what you do have.
Every Sunday evening during Advent, our family reads some Scripture, lights an Advent candle, and shares what God is laying on our hearts. This past week, our teenage daughter was quiet. When we asked what she thought about the season or the passage from the Bible, she whispered, “I don’t know what it is this year. I feel I’m terrible at Advent.” She just as well could have been saying, “Advent just doesn’t work out for me.”
Luckily, her honesty opened an important door. She explained how she knew that Advent was an “expecting” time, but that she just felt in a rut. She didn’t know if she was excited – truly excited – about anything. Plus, she had gotten her hopes up so many times before, only to see them dashed and never come to fruition.
As a dad, I wanted to immediately point out all the great things we had planned for the coming months, or multiple times when she had waited for something to come true, and it did! But I felt checked. My wife and I listened to her and thanked her for her candor. Then, we shared how there were a whole lot of Israelites – generation after generation, in fact – who had to have felt the same way before the coming of Jesus. We know the end of the story, but what about thousands of Jewish grandparents telling their children and grandchildren constantly of the coming Messiah in the 300’s B.C. (for example)? They died without ever seeing the promise fulfilled.
In his poem, “Harlem,” two of Langston Hughes’ possible answers to the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” are:
“Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
“Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.”
My daughter has seen a few dreams deferred. She’s experiencing Advent (and even Christmas) more like a withered raisin or a burden on her sagging shoulders. Are you with her? Have you been there?
Maybe the very season that we just don’t feel good at exists exactly for that reason. Advent is for the shepherds who had to tend the flocks all night, bored and waiting for dawn. Advent is for the pregnant teenage girl hearing all the whispers. Advent isn’t just for the frenetic mall shoppers and red-cheeked Christmas carolers. Advent is for the jobless and the homeless and the ones who have no big Christmas dinner to go to. Advent is for the girl who Advent just doesn’t work out for.
At the end of the scene in The Polar Express I mentioned above, two other children listen to the boy who Christmas “just doesn’t work out for.” After a moment of silence, they decide they won’t give up. “Look, I don’t know if Christmas is going to work out for you or not,” they plead. “But…don’t stay here by yourself. Come with us. We’ll go together.”
In a world that rushes to numb any feeling of inadequacy or unfulfilled promises, Advent invites us to sit and wait. And we do it together. We bring our dried-up dreams and heavy loads just as we are, acknowledging that the waiting has made us weary. And even though our track record points to disappointment, we hold out hope that the Messiah will come even in the midst of doubt, and even to us.