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Advent and the Absence of God

Jean Hoefling


In the bleak mid-winter, Frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone. 

– Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter

The raging, fertile excesses of summer are long gone and the world lies deep in Advent, this wending of the human heart in prayer and penance before the Nativity of Christ. In the spare gray-gold light of these mornings just shy of the winter solstice, we might sit where we sit each day to “meet with God,” our Bibles, rosaries, or prayer books at the ready. Outside, bare branches clatter against a wide, windy pewter sky, nature’s brittle resonance with the bewilderment and hardness of heart toward God many of us feel, hardly knowing where to begin to find his presence amidst the external noise that seems to increase around Christmas time.

We worry about having God’s presence, like it’s something to own. And in Advent, adventus, the season of coming and arrival, shouldn’t I expect even more of this presence, like a sparkling early Christmas gift sliding into my hands? We are consumers and we gotta have that presence, just like we gotta have a bunch of other things to feel significant and successful. But what about God’s absence? This Advent, I’m considering that Christ’s perceived absence is as much a gift as presence is. In his heartbreaking and passionate meditations on God and prayer, Prayers by the Lake, the Serbian bishop Nikolai Velimirovich says this about God’s absence: “You promised, and I bear the seal of Your promise in my soul. If You have not come yet, it is not Your fault, but mine. You are tender and compassionate, and would not wish to make me ashamed of my unpreparedness. Therefore, you approach slowly, and continuously announce Your coming.”

Relinquishment to God’s perceived absence seems to have very much to do with the nature of Advent itself. The natural world lies in faded dormancy, its glory stripped until spring. We too can accept dormancy, until in God’s good time the manger of our hearts is filled with the holy One who will make us fit for heaven.