Advent is upon us, and everyone seems to be writing about it. But actually my Advent started back on November 15, which is when Orthodox Christians enter into the nativity season. So like every year, we put up the Christmas decorations on the weekend of the 15th. We got out our little Advent tree and the ornaments that the kids put on it night by night. We bought an Orthodox Advent calendar with forty little windows to open.
I am going through the motions, but can I tell you? Just a week or two before Advent I went to confession. I wasn’t planning on it. I hadn’t made a list of things to ask forgiveness for. It was a day that I didn’t really want to be at church. But I was. And when I saw one of the priests standing at the back waiting to hear confessions, on a whim I went back there. I crossed myself and kissed the icon of Jesus and prayed the prayer from the laminated sheet. Let me tell you, that prayer pretty much covers all sins. But the priest still asks if you have anything to add. And when the time came for me to list my sins, the only thing I could say was, “I am struggling with doubt and unbelief.” I couldn’t say much more because I was crying too hard. My priest comforted me and passed no judgment. Afterwards, I went to the bathroom and washed my face, which was dripping with black smudges from my make up.
This little baby whose birth we are anticipating changed the world, there’s no doubt about that. He changed my world – he made it, he has been the reason for every stich in the fabric that shapes my life. But did he really come to die for my sins? I don’t know what that means anymore. I dig through my own perfection issues and wonder how much church had to do with my constant need to be good and pleasing to others. I wonder how many times those verses about humility and sacrifice and selflessness were used to produce good little robots. I look at all my unanswered prayers and wonder if anyone really heard them. But, on the other side, I know that this, of all religions, has grace, has a clause for all the never-good-enoughs: Redemption. Renewal. All things being made new. I balance these ideas side by side, wondering where the scale will fall.
My mom gifted me with an online Advent course, and when I first found out about it, I wondered if I could handle it or not. But on the very first day when the very first email arrived, it said:
“I began to wonder what it might look like to make a map in the dark: a map for the dark, a map stitched together of mystery and shadows, questions and wonderings. I began to imagine a map that will not tell me where I should go but instead will help me to see where I have been and to recognize what was occurring in the landscape of my life in ways I couldn’t perceive at the time. I began to dream of a map with wounds, with holes; a map that bears witness to what has been torn away, even as it allows space for light and illumination to enter, and for new paths to emerge from the dark.” (quote is shared with permission from Jan Richardson, a United Methodist minister, writer, and artist. Check out her website HERE.)
Maybe beliefs have been my map for existence, all those Bible verses and theology lessons and readings and hymns gouging out a path for me to walk on. Maybe my years of prayers carved out canyons through which waters could flow. What might happen if I step off the familiar trails and rivers? Can I trust that I won’t fall through the earth? Will God be able to find me out there in the unknown?
A map in the dark. A map for the dark. A map with holes and wounds and scars and rips. I can handle such a map. It is a map for a girl like me who finally started asking hard questions, for a girl who got lost in the middle of the place she knew the most.
This, then, is the map that takes me forward this Advent – towards belief or unbelief, I don’t know.
But even a map for the dark can hold hope.