Advent Disappointment

For many, including me, Advent is the best-loved season of the year. The haunting beauty of the liturgy, filled as it is with wonderful Old Testament prophecies and the plaintive notes of the chant, even the cold and darkness, have a magic and a mystery that affect us deeply. We know, because we have been told countless times, that the message of Advent is hope. We await the coming of our Saviour with expectant joy; so why do I write about Advent disappointment instead? Partly, it is because I try to write from my own and others’ experience; partly, it is because I think it is sometimes easier to handle disappointment than hope. Let me explain.

In recent weeks the community here has been sorely tried. The details do not matter, but we have not been able to enter upon Advent with our usual enthusiasm. In addition, we were not able to have the three days of complete silence with which we try to usher in the new liturgical year, knowing how busy everything becomes the nearer we get to Christmas. I have also added to the gloom by reaching a new low in my ability to cope with my cancer treatment. Only the dog seems to have escaped unscathed, and even he has covered himself with disgrace after catching and despatching a fine cock pheasant in the garden yesterday. But the disappointment, the not being able to do things as we would wish, does have something important to teach us. Those of a scriptural turn of mind are probably already quoting Isaiah 55. 8, 9 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Which is perfectly true, but not what anyone who has been disappointed wishes to hear. The ‘inspirational quote’ is often better left unquoted!

Disappointment is more than a fleeting sadness or displeasure or a vague sense of failure. It is a radical loss of position, of certainty. It is a gut-wrenching wobbliness that shows all too clearly what we are made of; and far from being liberating and encouraging, it is disheartening. To experience Advent disappointment is to experience the reality of what we proclaim with our lips: that we are nothing without a Saviour, that we hope for his coming because there is nothing and no-one that can answer our need except Him. Sometimes I think we have to plunge that depth of neediness in order to appreciate what a gift we are given, and we can’t do a double-take, as it were, pretending that we are completely at a loss but knowing it will eventually turn out all right. We don’t know; and that is the point. Some people never experience that kind of radical uncertainty, but Advent and Lent are two occasions when we may.

It would be lovely if Advent could be all candlelight and (Advent) carols, mince-pies and bonhommie, but it can’t and isn’t. Advent is a time for going out into the desert, especially our interior desert, and confronting the beasts we find there. We can try to adorn the starkness of Advent with the tinsel of a thousand fine phrases, but in the end we have to be utterly honest. Advent is an opportunity to plumb the depths of our own disappointment that we may learn the true meaning of hope in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thank You
The community is extremely grateful for all the Christmas gifts we have received. I shall try to write to those for whom we have contact details and in the meantime thank you for your patience and understanding.

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29 thoughts on “Advent Disappointment”

  1. Thank you for something that resonates with me. I always feel excitement coming towards the seasons and Advent is no exception. But this year, I feel strangely muted. Perhaps it is the impact of an Advent Course which we started last week, which explores the themes of Advent, starting with Death and goes through to the final week where we explore the concept of Hell through Art works from the National Gallery alongside scripture. So, it can be up and down as you dive into the depth of your faith, your lived experience and try to apply them through the lens of the topic being explored. And seek to answer two questions to yourself about how exploring this topic with sharing others lived experience and faith can help you through advent towards the coming of our Saviour. I am sure that other things are also affecting me. I prepared for my Confession and realised that despite my best attempts to living as a disciple, there are still grey spots, which I have been blind to in the past few months since Pentecost. In particular anger at how politics have twisted our views of what is right, what is needed and what unity means to different people. Also somehow people who are perfectly reasonable normally can become quite obnoxious if you question something they have said? I don’t define this as good anger because it seem to spring from something within me that doesn’t like disagreement with my own particular world view. Resentment possibly that my own position is questionable at best and plain wrong at worst.

    So, my Advent from now on is to be one of personal introspection, thinking before speaking and writing and listening more carefully for others. Being careful to respect their views, as I would hope that they would respect mine. Good disagreement as Arch Bishop Justin describes it.

    We shall see how it goes.

  2. So sorry to hear that you and the community are struggling under the weight of trails of life, to the point of frustration and disappointment. I’m sure that in other times you would have ‘ridden these particular waves’ but circumstances and illness are now preventing you from doing.
    I remember your advice from previous Advents and am reading the book of Ecclesiastes.
    Am praying that you overcome this bout of treatment enough to regain your appreciation of the season.

  3. Thank you for this searching post. I ponder my human failing, longing, expectation alongside the other Advent trappings that pull in the other direction. My hope and prayers are with your community, and gratitude for your prayers which uphold us all.

  4. I wish you the strength, courage and help from your God to overcome your illness.
    Your words are so often an inspiration and comfort – even to a non-believer.
    I salute you.

  5. Long ago, when I was still teaching, I wrote a reflection about the ideal image of Advent and its reality. At that time, my desire for space and silence to prepare for Christmas was thwarted by the weariness in my body, after a long school term coinciding with some of the busiest weeks as we put on Carol Concerts, plays, parties and, horror of horrors, discos. This year, the dawn of Advent found me with a chest infection which, while improving, is reluctant to relax its grip. I have been blessed with the grace of remaining at peace throughout it all. I am content to wait, and I remember that reflection of 30(?) years ago, in which I spoke of how God’s appearance among us as a helpless child eliminates any fear of approaching in our own helplessness and how “Christmas is also the feast of those who have nothing to give”. (I’m afraid I can’t remember the source of that quotation. I know where I could find it, but haven’t the energy to look!)

    • You have my prayers, Maria, and I am glad you are at peace. I didn’t know I wasn’t expected to survive the chest infection that hospitalised me earlier this year, but every day is a grace. I know you will join me in praying for those who are burdened with what I have described in my post. It can be very destabilising.

  6. Thank you for this. Your comments about the unknown resonate with me so much. I used to struggle with the idea of the unknown, the lack of control and foresight that is a simple feature of life, and it led to a lot of anxiety. Now I look at my little girl (3), and realise that every day she encounters the unknown, in so many areas of life, and yet blindly places her hand into mine knowing that facing it along with me means that she will get through it. (I am thinking, rather mundanely, of swimming lessons, which make her fearful sometimes, but feel free to replace with any more poetic life challenge!). Her faith in me and those who care for her is enough for her.
    Maybe that is another reason for Jesus appearing as a child? To remind us that sometimes a childlike faith is all we have and all we need.
    I wish you less challenging times ahead and a peaceful and wonderful Advent.

  7. Perhaps looking towards the dog is appropriate. The dog is just being the dog: actively following his instincts and desires as we all do at times. I don’t think however hard we try to ascribe humanness (if that’s a word) to the dog that he’ll change. It’s his nature after all. For us though the season of Advent has great expectation. The feeling is fleeting at times but it’s still there.

  8. I do indeed pray for them. I have been there and am very grateful that in my current situation I am able to pray with Charles de Foucauld, “Whatever you may send, I thank you.” This has been my only prayer for the past two weeks. I am not surprised your prospects didn’t seem good when you had a chest infection. How anyone who is as sick as you are survived, is a mystery.

  9. I am not offering unsolicited advice. That would be to miss the point of your post although am sure it is all well meant.Instead I offer gratitude for the raw honesty that so often we Christians don’t allow ourselves or others.Your post helped me feel less alone in the should,ought, must of the season which so overwhelms for many reasons. Thank you.

  10. Remembering you and the community in my prayers. Thank you for this deeply honest post. The consequences of treatment are often underestimated. The ravages of gross chemotherapy cannot be hidden. Please do not try too hard. Be angry if necessary. It is human. I am walking with someone who is having nasty chemo at the moment. Do not underestimate the effects of the chemistry on your physiology including your capacity to be generous. It will come back. Just be. Sorry to preach. I feel deeply about the effects of these useful treatments.

    • Worry not! After more than five years of chemotherapy, the last three and half requiring 24-hour infusions of trabectebin at three or four weekly intervals, with several days of sickness, fatigue and grumpiness after each, both I and the community are familiar with the effect it has on me. I won’t say we grin and bear it; we just bear it — and that is enough. The dog just ignores me, but he is a simple soul. Bless you for your prayers and consideration!

  11. I was woken early this morning by a mob of sheep, being moved up the road past my house! Dogs barking, men yelling and sheep bleating… Where I live it is rural and somewhat isolated, the outward material signs of Christmas are no where to be seen.
    We live in a dark sky pollution free area. No artificial night lights allowed!
    Here, your beautiful dogs catch would have been much appreciated as it would have been our dinner! I came from the city to live here and it’s taken me a few hard years to
    adapt. I have been stripping back of all artificial trimmings and this Christmas I’m just starting to feel and see how lucky I am. Thank you sister for reminding me to look at the physical beauty around me as we move into advent and I will be out at night looking for that star and I pray you see it too. Gods blessings.

  12. Happy St Nicholas everyone. Here in Germany it is celebrated of course, children getting little gifts, mainly sweets etc, a good way to help them through the long wait till Christmas. Hope your day has a few sweets to counteract the chemo fug!

  13. I am just immensely grateful for your comments about Advent etc Sister and for everyone’s replies. It helps me to find the way through. Our lives have changed completely this year since my husband has become more and more disabled.
    I pray that I may be a channel of His peace for my husband.
    The Marist motto ” Think as Mary, Act as Mary, Judge and speak as Mary” is one that I try, ( but hopelessly fail) to put into action so that my husband, hopefully, cannot realise how difficult things are, mostly due to extreme fatigue. I’m 85, he’s 82! I need to learn to ‘let go and let God’
    Thank you all. I came to this wonderful site quite by ‘accident’! but obviously not an accident!

  14. The ex-bishop Richard Holloway on disappointment “It’s hard,” he says, “when you discover that the person you are is not someone you admire; not the person you want to be; not cut out to be a saint.” Its a feeling I have at times and many recognise (NB the isolated sentence read a little too grim/self-pitying). The interview with him in the 31/7 Tablet deserves reading in the round – as does Leaving Alexandria

    • My one quibble would be that we are cut out to be saints, it’s just that the feet of clay are all too evident and tripped over frequently. Be encouraged. Self-knowledge is an important part of changing for the better, uncomfortable though it is.

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