Longing, Joy, & Hope: The Seasons of Advent and Christmas

Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.  We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.  We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.  We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.  We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.  We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.  To you we say, "Come Lord Jesus." Amen. -Henri Nouwen

“The Nativity Of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” Rublev.

“The Nativity Of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” Rublev.

Liturgical Season

Christian worship is fundamentally about union with God.  That is, God gives himself to us in worship.  And as we receive him- not merely by hearing his word, or making mental assent to a set of doctrines about him, but as we eat and drink him in Holy Eucharist- we are transformed into the image of Christ, unified with God, and brought into the very life of the Trinity!  And all of this happens by his grace, mysteriously, every time we gather to sing and praise, pray and preach, confess sin, receive absolution, share in the peace of Christ, and celebrate the sacraments.  This is Christian worship!

One of the unique ways the Church has learned to open herself up to the transformation that God offers, is through the observance of different liturgical seasons.  Basically, the Church says "Christians, let your worship of God be so pervasive and defining of your identity that even your calendars remind you of the gospel."

I love this!  And I find the observance of the liturgical calendar to be one of the most beneficial practices in my relationship with God.

Currently we are in the season of Advent, coming upon the season of Christmastide.  Let's use these as examples of how God shapes us in worship.  We'll ask: what parts of our human identity will be brought into union with God by Advent and Christmas?  I see three ideas here: Advent teaches us to be aware of our existential longings, and to point them in the right direction (toward Christ).  And Christmas- Christmas reminds us that union with God is a reality of joy and hope.  It is the fulfillment of our human longing!  The two liturgical seasons work together in this way.

Advent: Longing

In Advent we set out on a journey.  It's a journey of LONGING.  In the hymns and collects (prayers), the assigned scripture readings, the greenery around the church, and the progressive lighting of the Advent candles, we rehearse the plight of Israel in the First Testament as they waited for their Messiah to come and rescue them from slavery and oppression.  So we sing hymns with lyrics like this:

O Come, O come, Emmanuel, to ransom captive Israel.

Of course, the Messiah did come!  And so our longing during Advent is actually directed in large part toward the second coming of Christ!  It is a season layered with meaning and truth.  This is why sing:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending, Once for favored sinners slain; Thousand thousand saints attending, Swell the triumph of His train: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! God appears on earth to reign.

Even the colors of Christian worship help us tell the story of the gospel.  During Advent you'll see purple and blue vestments and linens around the church.  Purple is the color of royalty, but also of lament and repentance (purple is also used during Lent).  Blue is used in some churches, and it represents the anticipation of the season, like the deep blue color of the sky, just before dawn.  It is also the color of the Blessed Virgin in Christian iconography.

So the colors blue and purple remind us that, in Advent, we are longing and lamenting, waiting with anticipation, making repentant preparations for a Savior-King!  We don't have to leave our longings at the door of the church.  We can bring them with us to worship, knowing that God desires to meet and fulfill them in his coming.

Henri Nouwen, in his monastic diary, gives us these words about longing: "An important part of the spiritual life is to keep longing, waiting, hoping, expecting. In the long run, some voluntary penance becomes necessary to help us remember that we are not yet fulfilled. A good criticism, a frustrating day, an empty stomach, or tired eyes might help to awaken our expectation and deepen our prayer: Come, Lord Jesus, come. (Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary).

Cathedral Church of Saint Luke, Orlando, FL

Cathedral Church of Saint Luke, Orlando, FL

Christmastide: Joy and Hope

Then?  Christmas comes!  The blue and purple vestments and linens turn to gold and white, colors of celebration, joy, and light.  The dawn from on high has broken upon us!  The Church celebrates Christmas not with a single day, but with an entire season called Christmastide- twelve days of reveling in God's coming.  This means that, even when the stores take down their decorations on the 26th of December, Christians continue to linger in the joyful mystery of the incarnation.  Christmastide is an exuberant and vibrant time of worship as God shapes us into a people characterized by joy and hope.

The emotional uplift that comes with Christmas shouldn't be missed in the sentimentality of the moment.  We need to lean into the joy of Christmas just as we did the longing of Advent!  In a world as broken as ours, joy and hope are precious realities that can sometimes be covered up in the Advent waiting.  Christmas gives voice to the truth, at least once every year, that our ultimate destiny in union with God is joy, hope, and fulfillment.

So my prayer for all of us during this season of Advent and Christmas is that, through the self-giving of God in Christian worship, we may become a people who know our longings, and know the hope and joy that comes with the God who fills them with himself.

- Josh Bales

Hard Work, Sincere Grief, Profound Laughter

Soul care requires hard work, sincere grief, and profound laughter.

Hard Work


York Minster Cathedral in York, England, is one of the world's architectural wonders.  It's also one of the longest building projects, taking over 250 years to complete.  The result is breathtaking.

The Cathedral is not only a beautiful and enduring work of art, it's a physical space where its builders can commune with each other and with God.  And without burdening the point, sacred spaces like York Minster are meant to give the people inside an understanding of their very identity (i.e. Church is the place where Christians learn who they are).  And this is why I describe soul care as hard work.

Placing one's self on the gurney of personal growth is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting.  It should be.  We, too, are building a cathedral of sorts.  We are designing and constructing, tearing down and rebuilding, learning and unlearning.  We are lifting heavy things.  We are exercising (literally) and eating in new ways.  We are using all of our senses: listening more intently, looking for attentively, and touching more intentionally (I have on multiple occasions recommended massage therapy for clients who have not known human touch to be a safe experience).

Like a 9 to 5 job, soul care demands from us effort that may not come naturally.  It asks us to turn around and swim upstream from our default strategies for living and relating.  Perhaps this is why my clients at Journeys remark- and I've experienced this in my own therapy- that they sometimes leave sessions physically weary from “just talking.”

Soul care is hard work.  The result?  A beautiful, enduring work of art... a human masterpiece.  In a sense, we become Cathedrals, places of worship where identity is formed, and communion is enjoyed with God and others.  The difference between York Minster, and us, is that we don't have 250 years.

Sincere Grief

Grief is perhaps the primary example of the hard work that soul care requires.  The tears that build York Minster take an enormous toll on our human resources.

Nevertheless, (effective) soul care always, always involves grief because grief and soul care are both interested in the same things: movement, change, and transformation.

G. Roualt

G. Roualt

Sincere grief moves us from naivety to wisdom by helping us approach death, inherent in every life, with an appropriate (truthful) response.  In other words, we grieve in soul care because there is death in the world and to do otherwise would make us dishonest, or, at the least, completely out of touch with reality.

Author and Psychologist Thomas Moore, one of my favorite writers, in his wonderful book “Care of The Soul,” calls grief a gift of soul care, saying that, to resist sadness in everyday life is to set up one's self for a major, debilitating meeting with depression later on.  More than this, to resist grief is to resist its unique vision of the world, full of darker colors, that ironically moves us away from cynicism towards age and wisdom.

Another author, and an Anglican priest, Mike Mason, also makes this connection between sadness and transformation of the soul.  “Sadness signals change,” he writes.

...It is an intermediate emotion, a feeling that is going somewhere.  Like a seventh or a ninth chord in music, it is rich in subtle tones that tend toward resolution, lean toward home.  This is what distinguishes sadness from moroseness, self-pity, or depression, all of which have a feeling of stuckness.  Sadness is always in motion in the backfield.  You will know the real thing by this sense of movement toward happiness.  In photographs, crying and laughing are hard to tell apart.

Sadness is like that moment in a rainstorm when the rain has not yet stopped, but there is a perceptible brightening, and there comes that subtle change in the atmosphere signifying the imminence of a rainbow.  Sadness is hopeful.  Anger feels hard in the body, fear feels alien, and depression is like a dull poison.  But sadness is at home in flesh and blood.  It is a soft and relaxed presence, a comfortable garment for the heart. - Mike Mason, Practicing the Presence of People

Soul care invites us to reconsider the role of sadness and other so called “negative” emotions in our lives.  Instead of seeing them as problems, we can see them, perhaps with the help of a therapist, as sign posts of healing and growth.

Soul care is hard work.  It is sincere grief.  And it is also, thank God, laughter.  Soul care is profound laughter.

Profound Laughter

My wife, Mindy, loves to watch YouTube videos.  There's one video she could watch a hundred times in a row without getting bored.  And she's not alone because this video is one of the most watched in YouTube's history.  Any guesses?  See for yourself:

Author Frederich Buechner has written a lot about the significance of laughter in his own life and in the human experience.  He even attributes his conversion to Christianity to hearing the great preacher, George Buttrick, speak of salvation as great laughter:

And then there came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words that somebody sent me more than twenty-five years later so I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last minute and ad-libbed it—and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all. Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness, Buttrick said, but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, "among confession, and tears, and great laughter." It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon. - Frederick Buecher, The Sacred Journey

That conversion involves great laughter points to its necessity in soul care which is, in a sense, daily conversion.  And that soul care requires laughter should not surprise us even though it does.  For instance, if you stopped by Journeys Counseling Center in Orlando, where Mindy and I have an office, you probably wouldn't believe the amount of laughter sneaking out from the otherwise soundproof counseling rooms.  I don't mean to imply that soul care is amusement.  It's much deeper.  It's the laughter that Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee share at the end of their journey in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of The Rings" trilogy.


Soul care looks like this: my dad walking in from a rare snow in Tennessee.  I love this picture of my dad.  I keep it in my phone and look at it occasionally.  He is a fairly quiet man but the emotion on his face here- the laughter- is worth a million words.  I can only imagine what crazy joke my mom has told him to provoke such a free smile.  Look at his face.  Can you hear the sound of a quiet man turned into a laughing child because of frozen water flying through the air?  This is what soul care both requires and produces.

As Mike Mason already mentioned, laughter is interesting in that it’s hard to tell the difference between the face of someone laughing and that of someone crying.  In fact, laughter is at its best when it includes tears!  The English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray said: "humor is the mistress of tears."  This is why laughter is more profound than amusement.  And why the fly on the wall of the counseling room never knows whether the client and the therapist are laughing or crying.  We're doing both at the same time.

One final word on laughter and soul care: I think of them both in the context of redemption.  For Christians, redemption is given metaphorical form in the wildly colorful vision of heaven found in the Revelation of Saint John.  Heaven, John says, is a place where there will be no more darkness, crying, or pain.  In their place is the presence of the Trinitarian God.  And when I think of this place I wonder what our faces will look like- in the light of God.  I picture us laughing.  I picture our faces like that of my dad's.

-Josh Bales