Yesterday was the first day of Advent, marking the beginning of the Christian calendar. Advent is an alternative way to mark time, a counter-cultural contrast to the high, holy festival of holiday consumerism. It’s a sober start, for sure, beginning by naming all that’s wrong in us and this world, connecting us to the deep hopes and unfulfilled longings we carry with us.
Advent is a season for broken hearts, for those disillusioned with the life that’s on offer in our day. “Advent begins with the recognition that human progress is a deception,” writes Fleming Rutledge (and do get her Advent book – it’s a double-espresso for your faith). In these Advent days we take stock of our beautiful and terrible world, recognizing all that is bent, bruised, broken, and unfulfilled – in and all around us. We wait and want for something bright to break all this shadow, grief, and decay. In stark contrast to the holly and jolly of the cultural calendar, the Christian year reminds us that a few toys or presents are crappy substitutes for the bigger ache in our lives.
As the season begins, I’d like to add The Decemberists A Beginning Song to your Advent playlist. No doubt Colin Meloy (lead singer and avowed atheist) didn’t it write it as such, but that’s the wonder of God’s common grace: we can find so many resonances and reflections of God in the work of non-Christians, all part of the bigger reality and story that God is working in this world. God has this lovely knack for employing an unexpected chorus of people to reflect his glory and get his work done.
But why use it for Advent? Give the song a listen (see video below) and let’s walk through some of the lyrics, listening for cadences of Advent in the song.
But first, there’s the placement of the song on their album “What a terrible world, what a beautiful world” (a telling title in itself). A Beginning song is the last on this album. It comes right after 12/17/12, a mix of melancholy and anticipation for a child about to be born in the midst of a chaotic world (the date of the title is days after the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings). 12/17/12 captures the disturbing paradox of life and death, beauty and tragedy living side by side in this life: “Oh my God, what a world you have made here / what a terrible world, what a beautiful world / what a world you have made here.”
A Beginning Song comes as a response to the baffling incongruity of this world we inhabit. Against the backdrop of anticipating a baby in a dark and broken world, like the season of Advent, A Beginning Song gives us a way to enter and respond to this terrible, beautiful world.
“Let’s commence to coordinate our sights / get them square to rights.” – Advent is a beginning, the start of the Christian calendar, a time to reorient ourselves. As we remember the coming of Christ into our world, we realize so much is still so wrong. We’re left wanting for something more, waiting, hoping for Christ to come again. Advent is a season of longing and hoping for a world that works, a world set to rights, a time to calibrate and coordinate our vision for this world with God’s vision for the renewal of all things that is coming in Jesus Christ.
“Condescend to calm this riot in your mind / find yourself in time, find yourself in time” – in the Incarnation, God comes to address the chaos of sin that runs riot throughout our world. In Jesus, God condescends to our place, finding himself in space and time, coming among us, to renew all things. In worship, as we remember and rehearse God’s story in Jesus, we get oriented within God’s accounting of time and history rather than our culture’s rendition.
“I am waiting, should I be waiting / I am wanting, should I be wanting / when all around me” – this chorus repeats throughout the song. Advent is a season of waiting. We celebrate the first coming of Christ but we’re left wondering: “should we still be waiting, wanting when all around me is like Sandy Hook, like Syria and Yemen, a world of brokenness and terror?”
“Document the world inside your skin” – the foreground of Advent is the first coming of Christ, who moved into our neighborhood. The incarnation (literally “in flesh”) is God taking on skin and shin and limbs, entering into the frail and fragile world of human flesh. It is the mystery of God not just becoming like us but actually one of us, fully human.
“the light, bright light / and the light, bright light / bright light / bright light / is all around me.”
The song ends by answering that lingering question in the repeated refrain “I am waiting, should I be waiting / I am wanting, should I be wanting / I am hopeful, should I be hopeful / when all around me …” Is there something around me in this world that might call from me more than despair? At this point, there’s a hush that enters in, slowing down the pace of the song to allow for wonder, but then building up to it’s conclusion, singing out the stubborn and fierce Advent answer of hope – “when all around me … “the light, bright light / and the light, bright light / bright light / bright light / is all around me / it’s all around me / all around me.” Every time I hear this, I join in, wanting to yell it out, this longing, this echo of “Maranatha – come, Lord Jesus.”
Advent, coming at the darkest time of the year, reminds that in this world of shadow and decay, there is light and hope – the bright light of the coming Savior, Jesus Christ. And the Decemberists give us a good song with which to wait and watch.
(This is an edited version, first posted in 2015)