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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2012 Archives > November-December 2012 > Last Thoughts

Advent: A gritty season

Sometimes the gritty importance of Advent gets lost in the sparkling anticipation that has become a part of the holiday season.

But Advent is far more than the countdown to gifts and the arrival of Santa. It is really about a most significant expression of embracing love, and of our need for it in a world that is for many of us hostile or worse.

Many years ago, I witnessed a series of events that is for me a real-life metaphor of the meaning of Advent.

On a rainy day in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I saw a young boy of 12 or so hanging upside down from a small tree in the middle of a traffic island. Cars whizzed by as he hanged head down, like a piece of fruit, curled up in a ball.

He was a street boy, one of many left to fend for themselves during the turmoil the country was experiencing at the hands of a very cruel authoritarian dictatorship. Possibly his parents were killed during fighting that occurred as the government came to power, leaving him orphaned. Perhaps he was displaced as the rural poor were being re-located against their will from one part of the country to another.

The little boy eventually lowered himself and went across the street to talk to another street boy. Soon, they were involved in a scuffle, and the second boy struck him with a rock to his forehead. Then a policeman carrying an old, long barrel rifle with a wooden shoulder stock whacked both them hard on their backs and sent them running.

Bleeding, the boy returned to the tree and assumed his posture, first hanging upside down curled up in a ball and then sitting on a small limb in a fetal-like position. I realized this was his place of safety. Here he was secure from the butt of the policeman's gun, and the violence of street life, even when it was exacted by one who existed under the same harsh conditions as he.

I can't forget that experience. I did find a way to give him some meal tickets that a non-profit organization made available for Addis Ababa street children. And I connected him with a group that provided safe residences for them. I hope he took advantage of this.

That day is for me a powerful reminder of what Advent represents to followers of Jesus: that God comes to us in a world that can be isolating, hostile and sometimes violently cruel. God seeks to be in relationship with us. Far from home with no safe place to rest, Mary and Joseph were relegated to a stable for the birth of their child. And this gritty, humble story is at the core of our faith story.

The story tells us of a God who reaches out to us when we are vulnerable, at risk and alone, embracing us in love and reminding us that no matter what the world tells us, we belong to God and to each other.

This is the grittiness of Advent. It's not a time of romanticized anticipation of material gifts, nor the countdown to the arrival of Santa. It's the story of the gritty coming of God into our messy, imperfect lives to connect with us and give us hope.

Whether we are seeking safe haven in a stable among the barnyard animals or in a tree in the middle of a city street, God comes and claims us as God's own.

Thanks be to God.

The Rev. Larry Hollon is publisher of Interpreter and general secretary of United Methodist Communications. Read his FAITH MEDIA+CULTURE blog at

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