Maybe it’s because, in academic communities, by the time we get to this point, the quarter or semester has worn on so long, and our cumulative weariness is compounded by the fact that the hardest part, finals and endings, is yet to come. Or maybe it’s because, for many of us, the coming Thanksgiving holiday means going home to whatever demons or skeletons we’ve conveniently forgotten while constructing our own lives for ourselves. Or maybe it’s just because it gets dark and cold outside, signaling to us that it’s time to go internal. Whatever the reason, Thanksgiving seems to bring with it a swirling of the unresolved, a crashing in of fear and pain and despair, as arms held out straight buckle against the force of brokenness on the other side of the wall.
There is no liturgical reason why Thanksgiving is (almost) always followed by the first Sunday in Advent. Thanksgiving, a secular holiday, is tied to the end of harvest and celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, while Advent, the season that prepares Christians for the birth of Jesus, begins four Sundays out from Christmas Day. But Advent begins in chaos, and Thanksgiving forever to me seems the true inauguration day to that season of madness. The scriptures we read as the season begins put this squarely in front of us: “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” and “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint for fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
When Dylan Thomas said, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light” he was talking about his father’s impending death, knowing that while his father was yet old, more life was worth the struggle. And struggle it is, so much so that we can sometimes scarcely perceive what future or life might mean. But, what we learn each year in Advent is that the struggle is the generative time, the time when we can do nothing else but embrace the work of grief and hope. It is not gentle work. There is so much in our lives that, in order to survive, we must suppress and wait for a more convenient time to deal with, or deny that there is any dealing to do. But loss and brokenness always demand our willingness to feel , to rage, to confront, to weep, and only then to move on.
What is hope when there has been no despair? When we finally get to Christmas Eve, the scriptures give us, “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” There is no way around suffering, only a way through. On the way through, we are changed: strengthened to accept paradox, able to live with open hearts, changed to allow the messiness of honesty and disorder to be a part of life. Our salvation is in the chaos, which leads us into light and life and birth.