I have felt this Advent season in my knee.
As a runner, I am always competing against myself to be in the best shape that I can be. It is a lifestyle thing, of course, and I simply do not know if I could survive living in the city without such an outlet.
I had strung together a couple seasons of solid training, ready to take the end of autumn bundled up yet faster than ever. There was a bounce in my stride I had not felt in years.
There was also an ache in my knee I had never felt. Not once. This is strange. Perhaps it is nothing. It will pass. And so on I went, running as usual, sometimes taking a day or two off each week to aid recovery.
Someone else, happening to watch my stride, called me out. “Kaleb, you’re limping.”
In a moment, expectations for the future collided against the realities of the present. As much as the honesty was liberating, the outlook was frustrating.
A perfect intro, perhaps, into the Advent season.
A knee is hardly anything to complain about. Health is fragile, and I am fortunate to be in good health. Even with a limp, where one leg did most of the work and the other merely provided balance, I still probably could beat you in a foot-race. Even though, if the past has been any indication, I would not be able to walk straight for the next 36 hours.
But this limp has been more than a symbol, more than a metaphor of Advent. It has been synecdoche, an intimately felt expression of a much larger darkness that pervades our world as-is. It has humbled me, slowed me down enough to the point of acknowledging the darkness.
(It has slowed me down in both the figurative and literal sense – being reduced to running laps around the park near my house, so that if I have to quit the run I can just walk back, I have seen the same homeless guy trying to sleep on the same bench multiple times each day.)
You do not need to be caught up on the news to get a sense of how dark the world is, even though some of the news of recent days has been especially dark. There is darkness on the streets, in our families, between neighbors, within our bodies, throughout the planet. A darkness so big that to cite specifics would be inexorably reductive.
This is not the sort of darkness that contrasts with the astonishing good of the world, not the sort of darkness to help us better appreciate what we have. It is blatantly deceptive to refer to these rips in the fabric of our being as mere shadows that help us know there is light.
We try to pass the blame for the darkness. If only I had been there. If only such a law was passed. If only other people were not so ignorant. If only, if only, well, perhaps this is just dumb luck.
Some of us try to create alternative realities where the darkness does not exist. Some of us look to the past, as if the darkness was not there. Others of us look to the future, as if we can overcome the darkness on our own merit. But instead of shining light into shadows, we set caustic fire to the tears and rips and create even uglier things.
We think our willpower alone with be enough to save us. We think we can keep running, and that strange ache turns into a full-fledged limp.
This is nothing new. It goes back throughout places and eras, it includes the first Advent, that long, intra-testamental period of darkness that eagerly anticipated divine salvation.
A nation looked for a messiah to overthrow its oppressor. The prophets had told them one was coming, and the pundits had said the messiah would come with a very militaristic type of willpower, but willpower nonetheless.
What the nation got was a defenseless infant. Born to a nervous, teenage mother and a dumbfounded, adoptive father. Born in the back of some hollowed-out space meant for livestock. It was an event that happened under the nose of emperors and revolutionaries, who while basking in their artificial light missed what shepherds and magi saw emerge out of in the darkness.
It is not a cute story. It is a story that should send chills down our length of our spine.
The optimist, the enthusiast, the leader in me wants to skip ahead to the celebration of Christmas. But that is not the season we are in.
Advent is a season of hope. But hope is not blind optimism. Hope listens. Neither bum knees nor baby kings sneak up on those who hope.
A roommate and I recently attended the Chicago Children’s Choir concert under Cloudgate (aka “the Bean”). They sang a number of traditional Christmas songs – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Silent Night and such. But they closed with a fascinating one-two punch that may be the most true-to-Advent songs I have heard this year.
The first was One Day by Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu (“I know some day it’ll all turn around because / all my life I’ve been waiting for / I’ve been praying for / for the people to say / that we don’t wanna fight no more”), followed by Revelations 19:1 by gospel worship leader Stephen Hurd (“For the Lord our God is mighty / Yes, the Lord our God is omnipotent / The Lord our God He is wonderful”).
I don’t know if I am to chalk this up to some vision of the artistic directors, or the subversive power of children to speak truth to the pervasive darkness, but this juxtaposition of taking-the-world-as-is and worshiping-God-as-is lingers.
Advent, I am coming to find, is a season for letting the darkness in. Because something greater than ourselves has come – and is coming – in a form so surprising as an infant. We won’t find it in the distractions of forced celebrations or utopian visions. We will only find it in an authentic sense of hope, and even then, it will not come when we planned, nor will it be what we thought it was.
It only comes once a year. Let us embrace it while we can.