I do not usually associate Advent and suffering. I typically think of Advent as a time of joy, a celebration of Jesus coming to us in the manger, a celebration of new life and a precursor to lent, with nary a negative connotation. My wife was pregnant with our first son during the advent of two years ago. I recall her telling me how “real” it made Advent to her, then, life growing inside her; the expectation and hope of new life.
This present Advent is a much different experience. Our second son was born just before Thanksgiving. Our hearts were bursting at the seams the moment we laid eyes on him. And with the birth of this precious little soul came some unexpected challenges, besides. My wife is recovering from a C-section and is unable to lift our 18-month-old son as she used to, something he does not understand. The week after getting home from the hospital, our newborn got the croup. My wife was already suffering from a sinus infection that took root before our newest addition came to us, which is also affecting her hearing. Then I got sick and had to go back to work. All of this, on top of the complete lack of sleep that comes from living with a newborn, had me wondering: Where is God?
God is in the Cave
These sufferings reminded me that God did not come to us under pretty circumstances — warm, cozy, sleeping all night long with adoring mom and dad dozing peacefully beside. Our Lord came under harsher circumstances: at the tail end of a long and troubling journey for Mary and Joseph, on a cold night, in a cave. “There was no room for them in the inn.” I can’t imagine taking my nine-months-pregnant wife on a nearly 100-mile journey on donkey back. To imagine no access to modern medical services, no warm hospital bed, no night nurse to take our little bundle to the nursery for a few hours so mom can sleep after recovering from major surgery … it puts current affairs into perspective.
The Pedagogy of Suffering
When our boy got croup, I almost cried. I knew he would be okay, but I felt helpless. Why now? I wondered. This is the worst possible time. We were sleep deprived, adjusting to life with a new baby, and worried that the illness would spread to our newborn son. All I can do is pray. That was my first instinct. But my prayers were less than gracious. Seeds of bitterness were sprouting. I felt as if I had trusted God and he let me down. After a particularly troubling morning, my spirit gave out. I was bitter, sad, at my wit’s end. I did not understand why God was refusing to make the whole thing easy for us. Easy for me.
It does not usually take long for me to understand that my desire for the journey to be easy is rooted in a lot of selfishness. When I started to reflect on our situation and the timing coinciding with Advent, the why became more apparent to me. Suffering is mysterious in many ways. We do not always have a satisfying answer for it. But often times suffering is a means by which God trains us and teaches us to be more like him. If life were always easy for me, if I never had to suffer inconvenience or heartache, I likely would not progress in the spiritual life into a deeper relationship with God.
An Advent Charged with Meaning
Advent has profound meaning with or without our personal woes. But often it is the journey of life, our own particular trials and struggles, that bring the liturgical year to life. It is hard to pause in the midst of challenges and to see God moving and working in them. Even if we see Him there, it may be harder still to move forward in that awareness when things remain “hard.” But Advent gives us hope, and there is real joy in that. Our suffering can be a gift that allows us to enter into the Advent story personally and experience hardship with the baby Jesus and His own immediate family.