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Draw near: Praying in Advent

Lynne Baab • Tuesday December 6 2022

Draw near: Praying in Advent

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had an interesting take on how to engage in the Advent season. His words can guide our prayers during this season leading up to Christmas. In a sermon delivered on Dec. 2, 1928, when he was only 22 years old, Bonhoeffer said:

“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come” (from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons).

December is such a complicated month for those of us who live in countries with a strong Christian heritage that has been overlaid by consumer culture. The advertising culture is telling us to shop for the absolutely perfect gift for everyone on our list, not to mention perfect decorations for our house and the perfect Christmas card. This creates an anxiety-filled background for many of us. Stores are filled with Christmas carols which vary from the ridiculous and cute to songs that are filled with deep theology about the event we are going to celebrate on December 25. The variety of Christmas messages is confusing, and in addition, many of us feel uneasy about upcoming Christmas gatherings.

Often at church we are encouraged to reflect on the season and prepare for Christmas. Throughout Christian history, Advent has been viewed as a penitential season, a time for reflection and confession of sin, as well as a time for looking ahead to the second coming of Jesus, when all will be made right. That blend of sorrow and expectation is hard to attain in our best moments, and frankly, for many of us, December is filled with many moments where we are not at our best.

Bonhoeffer’s idea about the appropriate attitude in Advent resonated with me because December is often a month when I do feel “troubled in soul, poor, and imperfect.” Since I have a tendency to wallow, I love his reminder about looking “forward to something greater to come.” This quotation might fuel our prayers in Advent in several ways:

1. We might want to ask God for the freedom to let ourselves feel “troubled in soul, poor, and imperfect.” We don’t have to dwell in those feelings constantly, but the hyper-optimism that floats around Western culture tells us never to feel need or incompleteness. We can ask God to help us give ourselves permission to feel all our emotions fully.

2. We might ask Jesus to help us notice and appreciate the times that he was “troubled in soul.” We might ask for his companionship when we feel that way.

3. We might pray for people who experience poverty in any way, including those who are poor in heath, relationships, and resources. 

4. We can ask God for the ability to “look forward to something greater to come.” This might involve a prayerful attitude while reading Isaiah or the Gospels, listening to Handel’s Messiah or traditional Christmas carols, journaling about Christmas themes, or setting up a crèche carefully and with reverence.

Bonhoeffer’s words reminded me of an old hymn. The version I learned as a young Christian was in a minor key with a strong beat. It was written in 1759 by Joseph Hart, who came to faith later in life. His opening stanza is an invitation to come to Jesus:

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
full of pity, love, and power.

His third verse contains the words that resonate with Bonhoeffer’s statement about Advent being for people who are “troubled in soul . . . poor and imperfect.” This stanza is also interesting to read in the light of its author who “lingered” and became a Christian after many years of living without following Jesus.

Let not conscience make you linger,
nor of fitness fondly dream;
all the fitness he requireth
is to feel your need of him.

Fernando Ortego and Amy Grant sang this song, with some additional words added as a chorus, and you can listen to all six stanzas here.

All the fitness Jesus asks of us is to feel our need of him. That’s the core of the Advent stance Bonhoeffer is advocating, and we can pray that God will give us this form of fitness.

(Next week: praying for joy in Advent. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

My book Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life is a helpful Advent read. It’s available in paperback, audiobook, and for kindle. My blog series on grief and thankfulness begins with this post. Both the book and the blog series focus on holding grief in one hand and gratitude in the other, which dovetails nicely with Bonhoeffer’s words.

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