The Geography of Advent

Five years ago this Advent, I was assigned a new client at a community mental health facility for severely traumatized and chemically dependent individuals. The client’s name was Marcos and in our first session he told me, “If you want to understand my life, you need to become familiar with Guernica.” Marcos reached his tobacco-stained fingers into his wallet and unfolded a battered copy of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting.

The piece was created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain during World War II. To become acquainted with the painting is to become familiar with suffering and the tragedies of war. Bodies of animals and civilians have been brutalized by shrapnel, arms desperately reach up to the heavens before their impending death, a mother cries in anguish as she holds the corpse of her baby.

When we think of Advent, we tend to imagine quiet manger scenes, festive wreaths, chocolate-filled calendars, and carols that warm our souls like Pumpkin Spice Lattes—or just a PSL if you are up on the times. The complexity however is that the more I read the gospel accounts associated with Advent, the more it seems I am studying something akin to Picasso’s Guernica than anything that goes on in our churches during the Christmas season. It is as if Advent has been hijacked.

Here is what I mean:

In the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod is a furious man killing off all the male babies who might threaten his throne and Jesus, the true king must spend his infancy hidden in Egypt as a refugee. The storyline? Herod better watch out, his reign of terror is about to be over; there is a new king coming to town.

In the Gospel of Luke, Mary the mother of Jesus is not a young, naïve, or docile maiden. Her words are profound and filled with the language of revolt. When Mary begins to grasp the implications of the birth of Jesus for the world, she exclaims, “The mighty will be dethroned! The lowly will be exalted! The hungry will be filled with good things! The rich will be sent away empty!” Her words were so powerful that Guatemalan army banned them in the 1980’s for fear they would lead to revolt.

In the Gospel of John, the Word, who is Jesus, takes on sarx, the Greek word for flesh. In other words, the God of the Universe becomes killable on our behalf.

If Marcos were a pastor, I imagine he would say something along the lines of, “If you want to understand Advent, you need to become familiar with Guernica.”

And instead of telling a humble manger story or caroling with our small groups throughout our neighborhoods, he would ask them to consider Guernica stories—the ones that have marked their lives and the lives of their enemies and friends.

What are the stories where you have held death in your arms? Where have you seen beast and human suffer the agony of living in our world? Where has your homeland, experienced racism, misogyny, and trauma—and are you, like Mary, eagerly awaiting the arrival of this refugee God who is going to put the world back together again?

Marcos’ body hunched over his copy of Guernica as his tears fell to the page below. Two of his sons had been killed in the same year, one in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan. His wife was killed the following year when a tractor-trailer flipped on top of her car during a winter storm. Tears falling over Guernica—is this what Advent is all about? I think it is. This is the geography of the arrival of Jesus. We do not need Advent to escape our suffering; rather we need suffering in order to discover Advent. This Christmas, as we enter the joy of the season, may we not forget the stories that have formed our longing for the return of our king. Unto us a Savior has been born.