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Grief and gratitude in Advent

Lynne Baab • Thursday December 2 2021

Grief and gratitude in Advent

“We have a prevailing feeling, especially in the west, that spirituality must always be uplifting and positive. This tendency arises out of a confusion about what love truly is. We know that God is love, and that we are called to live lives of love, but we often think of the fake love of Hollywood movies and catchy pop songs. Love is not a positive happy feeling. It is not always uplifting and encouraging. Love is selflessness, it is the rapture of being lost in the well being of others. So, it follows naturally that if we have love for creation, as God does, that we will feel a great sadness for the condition of the world and those within it.”
—Justin Coutts, “The Deep Mystery of Sacred Sadness,” from his blog, In Search of a New Eden

I love the way Justin Coutts links love with sadness. Advent and Christmas are all about love: the love of God coming to earth and the love of family and friends in a beautiful holiday season. Yet alongside that holiday love lurks so much sorrow: family and friends who have died or from whom we are estranged; people we love who are physically or philosophically distant; our knowledge that as we eat rich holiday food, many others are hungry, and as we sit in comfortable homes, many others are homeless.

Advent has always felt a bit schizophrenic to me. On the one hand, the church tells us Advent is a penitential season like Lent, so we are supposed to remember human sin, repenting of our own sin and grieving for the effect of human sin in the world. The minor key of “O come, O Come Emmanuel” represents the longing and pain we feel for the brokenness of the world that required Jesus to come to earth. At the same time, many churches sing upbeat Christmas carols throughout the month of December, and in the wider culture December is filled with frantic activity.

I feel so much less schizophrenic entering into Advent in 2021 than I have in previous years because I am striving to hold grief in one hand and gratitude in the other. I can affirm Justin Coutts’s words about the connections between sadness and love, while also noticing so many things to be thankful for. 

Here are some more of Coutts’s thoughts about sadness and mourning:

“There is a great heaviness in truth. In the reality of life there is hurt and pain for all of God’s creatures, and in many of God’s children this pain and injury is all consuming and relentless. For this reason God weeps for humanity. . . . So, if you find yourself feeling a heaviness in your heart, don’t assume that means you are off track. If you find yourself mourning for the state of the world, then you are mourning with Christ. Do not fight the sadness, do not run from it. Be at peace with it. Be comfortable in it. . . . Learn to rest in the beauty of the Divine Sorrow. For not only are we empty in our being but God is just as much grief as love. If we are not tangibly soaked in the tears of Christ then we are not living in the truth. This is the sacred sorrow.”

I love the permission he gives for us to feel sad. I love his challenge to find beauty in sorrow because we are entering into God’s sadness about the world. We are experiencing Jesus’ tears.

All year long, but especially in Advent, we grieve that the world is so broken that Jesus had to come to earth, and we rejoice that he did. Coutts quotes German theologian Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1328): “Love is the root of all joy and sorrow.” Let’s allow love to stretch us large this Advent as we experience both grief and gratitude.

(Next week: the right to feel sad when we have received something we longed for. Illustration by Dave Baab: the heart bridge in Kubota Gardens, Seattle. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.)

My new book – Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life, now available as an audiobook as well as paperback and kindle.

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