Christmas is coming! Deck the halls! Prepare your hearts!
I don’t want to lie to you. With each passing December, I try harder and harder to manufacture feelings of Advent joy. I drape one more garland, plug in another string of lights, bake an extra dozen cookies with the kids, and sing the carols in every unnerving moment of silence. I even made a Christmas coloring book. It’s like the 2004 movie Deck the Halls, in which two neighbors compete to be the most festive, escalating to comical levels involving live camels and visible-from-space light shows…except I’m both characters, rolled into one, competing with myself.
Those who closely attend to the Christian liturgical calendar know Advent is less about garlands, lights, and live camels and more about waiting, preparing, and anticipating. In this liturgical logic, Advent invites us enter the Christian story by suspending us between the past and future arrivals of Jesus. Advent bids us inhabit that spacetime just before the birth of Mary’s baby over two millennia ago, which was both the miracle of new life and the miracle of God’s full-bodied entrance into creation as Emmanuel, God-with-us. At the same time, Advent reminds us we’re still waiting for God to finish the story, to make another dramatic entrance and finally fix everything for good. Our waiting can be filled with warmth and love and good cheer, yes, but the data on mental health is clear: Advent is a difficult season for many people (for more, see the “Guide to Managing Mental Health around the Holidays” by McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School). Waiting can be a struggle.
Advent Longing and Theological Answers
As an author of genre fiction, I know this struggle on a professional level. Writers who dare venture into traditional publishing pitch their best work to agents and publishers—waiting to hear back for weeks and months and years—often repeatedly, in iterations and from one project to the next, nursing the dream of becoming a “successful author” only to face a surplus of rejection or, worse, utter silence. The waiting hurts not because we are impatient but because life is short, and, with each passing year, our dream is dying.
When Advent asks us to wait for new life, we sometimes instead sense an absence. As a rejection-collecting author, I know the feeling of dreams deferred—but I’m speaking of a more profound absence: the absence of life itself. How long must we wait for justice? Entire peoples cry out for relief from cruel and senseless oppression, sometimes for centuries. And the pain of dreams outright denied and lives tragically lost? How can we muster Advent joy when our loss is too deep for words?
This is the point where theologians and pastors are tempted to offer an answer to make the bad feelings go away. I was trained at Duke Divinity for a decade and work there as the dean’s research editor—I’m familiar with this instinct. But I want to slow that roll. I want to truly hear the refrain from the Porter’s Gate song: “How long? How long? When will the daughters of Zion rejoice in the house of the Lord?” Loss is real, pain is valid, and, to be honest, they leave me asking if it’s all just a story and, if not, what in God’s good cosmos is taking so long.
Generative Waiting and God-with-Us
I’m writing this letter for Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, which guided my theological training as an artist-theologian. As both a creator and consumer of art, I believe the space formed by our deepest hurts and greatest longings serves as the generative core of grounded and truthful art. I sometimes find solace here, as this space provides a way of entering the story and enduring the wait alongside others. A profound song or book or movie lets me explore these hurts and longings, in a sense, with other artists and all those who likewise listen or read or watch. I’m not proposing that either art or community is the “answer” that replaces pain with joy. But if we might take a hint from the Book of Job, in which Job’s not-so-great “friends” explained away Job’s suffering, sometimes we don’t need answers so much as others sitting in the ashes with us, waiting for who-knows-what. To be not-alone.
Emmanuel, God-with-us. I’m an introvert and don’t fancy seeking others to sit alongside, but this sitting-alongside can take many forms. Maybe we can be a simple presence alongside each other in the generative space of waiting. After all, Advent shines not as the charismatic fires of Pentecost but as tiny, vulnerable flickers of candles during our darkest nights.
Tonight, my family and I lit the first candle on our Advent wreath—the single, daring flame of hope. I don’t have answers and can’t guarantee anything. But I can hope. And I hope you’ll join me as I watch for the glimmer of tinsel, the twinkle of lights, the flicker of flames, and the sparks of good deeds and stories well-told. May we there find the delicate yet vibrant hope in Emmanuel’s promises—that joy, faith, peace, and new life are now with us and just around corner—and that what’s yet to come is far greater than we dare to imagine.
Yours in the waiting,
Jacki Price-Linnartz, Th.D.
Jacki Price-Linnartz is a scholar, fiction author, graphic artist, and four-time Duke grad (B.S., M.T.S., Th.M., Th.D.). She grew up in rural Appalachia before migrating to Durham, NC, where she lives with her spouse and two kids. Her academic essays appear in ARTS Journal, Word & World, Participatio, and DITA’s The Art of the New Creation (IVP 2022). Her short fiction appears in Relief journal and Dreaming Robot Press, and her graphic art appears frequently on Twitter and fills the pages of her coloring books sold by Amazon. She currently serves as the research editor to Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric, Dean of Duke Divinity School. Learn more at jplinnartz.com.