Shhh. Enuma Okoro is inviting us to listen to God in silence this Advent.
At this season of the year, the air bustles with the hurried cadence of the annual December Festivus Frenzy, with its cacophony of shoppingholidaypartiescookieexchangesconcertsdecoratingwrapping. The weeks leading up to Christmas often feel more like beating a deadline than connecting more deeply to God.
Advent's rhythms of contemplation, repentance, and preparation of heart give us an opportunity to unwrap - slowly and oh-so-intentionally - the real gift of this season. To that end, author and Her.meneutics contributor Okoro has written a devotional entitled Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent (Upper Room, 2012). It offers 28 days of brief, rich meditations on themes such as doubt, barrenness, waiting-as-labor, and receiving God's promises.
I recently talked to Okoro about how creating space in our lives for Advent, which begins this Sunday, can reshape our experience this month.
Was Advent part of your Christmas experience growing up?
I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church in both the United States and West Africa, so yes, Advent was very much a part of my childhood Christmas experiences, more so with Advent calendars and such. I think I had a bit of a girl-crush on Mary when I was younger. I held her in awe. The fact that she was pregnant with God blew my little mind. I still have a girl crush on her, but now it's because I recognize her courage and her strength to say yes to bearing God.
How has Advent shaped your experience of Christmas as an adult?
Advent reminds me in a very visual, powerful way that we are called to be pregnant with God. We are all called to labor with bringing Christ into the world, not just at Advent but throughout the year. The Advent cycle is a wonderful way of reposturing ourselves for delivery throughout the year. Because I recognize Advent, it means that I recognize Christmas more as a season than a day. I don't decorate my tree until the last weekend of Advent, and then I keep it up through the 12 days. I love the aesthetics and smells of Christmas, and sometimes it feels like an extra treat when I've had to wait for it.
Some Christians don't have experience with Advent much beyond thinking of it as a Christmas countdown. Why should they celebrate Advent?
Advent reminds us that as Christians, we follow a different understanding of time than the rest of the world. One gift of deepening our Advent observance is in its drastically different pace to the holiday culture. Advent can teach us to honor the seasons of our lives in which life doesn't happen at the pace we desire. We can all relate to that at some point.
I also think Advent is a wonderful way to teach children alternate notions of courage, strength, fortitude, perseverance, and hope. Mary and Elizabeth portray these traits.
What can individuals and families do to deepen their Advent observance?
Individual families might keep their Christmas tree undecorated until the last weekend of Advent and make a point of celebrating Christmas for 12 whole days. Churches can have midweek Advent services for the four weeks of the season. But that's merely a suggestion. It's always more meaningful when families and communities discern their own ways of recognizing the season.
What led you to write Silence?
I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the familiar ways I had acknowledged the season. There were times in which Advent felt more like Lent to me, deeply painful and full of quiet spaces in which I felt permitted to both lament and hope in the call to wait on God.
I loved the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, this faithful couple who had to live most of their lives with the sorrow of unanswered prayer. I was drawn to Elizabeth in particular, whose primary identity as a woman during her time was forsaken her. Yet she kept the faith. We can learn just as much from the silent spaces of Scripture as from the text. So I wanted to meditate of those spaces in the early part of the Advent story.
In this same account, we often see Zechariah's silence as God's punishment for his disbelief. But I wondered if there wasn't also grace there—the kind for grace that came when God clothed Adam and Eve while still recognizing their sin. What if the silence permitted both Zechariah and Elizabeth time to dwell on all that God was now doing in their lives so they could listen, pray, and prepare?
Silence asks readers to consider their own questions of doubt, barrenness, pain and longing. What led you to explore these themes in relation to Advent?
Stuff happens all the time that makes me want to scribble God a "Dear John" letter. But I haven't found a better option besides God. What I have found is that it is an act of faithfulness to bring the range of human experiences before God. The harder themes you name are just as real and significantly shape our faith and our images of God and of ourselves in relation to God as the more pleasant ones we tend to focus on.
For the most part, we do not do a good job in Western society of sitting in places of discomfort. We do not know how to sit with our own pain or the pain of others. As a result, we can really miss out on deepening compassion and engagement with our communities that could lead to more healing, in all senses of the word.