By Gregory Coles. Greg is a Senior Research Fellow at The Center and is the author of Single, Gay, Christian and No Longer Strangers.
I had great intentions of preparing my heart for Advent this year.
Alas, the phrase “I had great intentions” is a harbinger of doom.
Let’s rewind the story. My life the last few months, albeit fabulous, has also been kind of messy. I’ll spare you the details: they’re multitudinous, and you probably have enough experience with your own messy life to use your imagination on mine. It’s about what you’d expect. Big hopes and big disappointments, dreams for the future and nagging fears. Joys and challenges in my relationships, in my professional life, in Christian community, in my own walk of faith. Perceiving myself in turns as a workaholic and a slacker, confident in my convictions and riddled with self-doubt, sure of the way forward and immobilized by uncertainty.
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I wanted to tidy up all these messes and contradictions before Advent arrived. I wanted to package them in boxes like Thanksgiving decorations, deposit them in the basement, and sweep my soul’s floors clean in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival. I wanted to make room for Jesus by resolving everything else.
But Advent (rudely) came before I had time to clean myself up for it. It came while my heart was still hiding ornamental pumpkins in the coat closet and shoving candy corn detritus under the rug, while I was smelly and unshowered and wiping the last conversation’s tears off my face. There’s some part of me that wants to say, “Hang on a second, Jesus. Don’t show up quite yet. I’m still trying to get ready for you.”
And this, I suppose, is precisely the point. Jesus’ invitation to us in Advent is not to tidy ourselves for his arrival, but to welcome him into our unready mess.
Jesus, after all, didn’t schedule his arrival on earth with an eye toward well-prepared accommodations. He came right in the middle of an empire-wide census, while his parents’ lives were in upheaval, inconveniently far from home, in a town so crowded people were sticking babies in feeding troughs. Mary’s womb was chosen as Jesus’ first earthly home, not because Mary felt especially ready for God, not because the timing was good, but simply because God showed favor to her and she said yes.
The miracle of Advent—the mystery of it, the scandal of it—has something to do with the unworthiness of the place God chooses to dwell. Jesus becomes Emmanuel, “God with us,” not because the mess of earth has been swept away to greet him, but because the mess is so great that only the incarnate God can save us from it.
I want to push back Advent on the calendar, to make myself ready for it. And yet the things that make me feel unready for Advent, unworthy of Advent, are the very reasons I need Advent. The mess I want to clean up in order to make room for Jesus is the same mess Jesus came to dwell within.
I don’t know what messes you’re dealing with this Advent season. If you’re here reading The Center’s blog, maybe they have something to do with conversations about sexuality or gender identity. Maybe you’re an LGBTQ+ or same-sex attracted person muddling through your theological convictions, or navigating relationships heavy with hurt and misunderstanding, or grieving alienation from once-trusted community. Maybe you’re a straight person trying to make sense of experiences you don’t share or grappling with how best to journey alongside loved ones. Maybe you’re negotiating seemingly irreconcilable differences or lamenting your own missteps. Maybe your messes have to do with your singleness, or your marriage, or your past sexual mistakes, or your ongoing sexual brokenness.
Or maybe your messes are, like mine, largely relegated to other realms. Maybe they’re so big and diffuse that you have trouble classifying or putting words to them. Maybe they’re just a consequence of your own (and everyone else’s) incorrigible humanness.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re experiencing in this season, the hope of Jesus’ coming is for you.
Is your world impossibly broken? Good. That’s the world Jesus came to heal.
Are your messes impossibly big? Good. Their resolution has always been outside of your control, relying on the unearned grace of the incarnation.
I’m unprepared for Advent. I’m messy. And I’m beginning to believe that’s precisely what Advent is for— not to celebrate our preparedness, but to be the engine of our preparation. The gift of the incarnation can’t wait until our messes are solved, because the incarnation is the only thing in the world with the power to resolve the enormity of our collective human mess.
In classic upside-down-kingdom fashion, the only thing strong enough to overturn whole empires of brokenness is born to an unready world as a helpless infant. The same hands that hold our universe can barely wrap around one of Mary’s fingers. The more unready I am to receive this miracle, the more I need it.
O come, o come, Emmanuel.