The Hollowness: Grief and Emptiness in Advent

What?! The Great Feast of the Nativity of our Savior is less than a week away? As is usual for me this time of year, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’m failing at Christmas. As is also usual for me this time of year, I’ve come to a belated and idealistic conclusion: less perfectionizing, more reflecting and giving thanks. In keeping with this intention, I’ll be (trying to) post once a day until the big feast.

I’m kicking the week off with a post I wrote last year, on my personal blog before the days of Time Eternal. I remember how much I needed to write this essay. Looking back on it a year later, the words still resonate, reminding me that a little emptiness can sometimes go a long way.

Until last week, when the arctic winds finally decided to do their job, it was an unseasonably warm Advent season. Having had an extra month or so to eat their fill, the squirrels waddled around in a one-track search for any remaining nuts.

Now, the snow is here to stay and the squirrels have found their way into hibernation. But in a manner not dissimilar to their nutty obsessions, I have found myself—as I do most Decembers—trying to satisfy a familiar gnawing feeling.

It’s a feeling that haunted the lines of the needlessly peppy Christmas music wafting out of a storefront I walked past after work yesterday.

It curled—like tendrils of invisible smoke—around the glimmering ornaments we hung on our miniature tree last weekend.

It awakens me sometimes, in the midst of these mornings of extended darkness.

You know what I am talking about: the Hollow-ness. The flatness. The anti-climatic angst.

The Seasonal Staleness that seems to pervade even our best efforts to infuse this time of year with some semblance of significance.

Advent, we are told, is intended to be a time of waiting, of anticipation. But most of the time, this kind of waiting seems far removed from the “joyful anticipation” of the greeting cards that have already started showing up in our mailbox. The waiting of Advent feels much more like a reaching, a clawing, an itch you can’t scratch. A Hollowness you can’t fill… Perhaps this year more than ever.

It is not merely the events on the news that dash our hopes—the election, the refugees, the shootings. It’s the thoughtless reactions and empty discourses that pile up around those events, confusing us. Crushing us into dis-empowered despondency.

And so, this year, the hollowness comes readily, quickly casting inky shadows around the fragile hopes we reserve for unlikely things like miracles, beauty, redemption, healing. Sacredness.

Maybe it’s time we stop avoiding it. Maybe it’s time we stop singing Christmas carols and plugging our ears to keep the Hollowness out.

Maybe the hollowness is as it should be.

*

My first Christmas in an Orthodox setting, I experienced something Other.

I learned, for example, that Christmas does not start until Christmas itself—that the season before Christmas is called “Nativity” or “Advent,” and it is a time during which we relive the waiting and anticipation of the coming messiah. I learned it’s a season best marked not by cookies and hot chocolate, but by prayer and fasting, and concern for the poor, and a quiet, joyful sort of hoping. I learned that you don’t have to exhaust yourself with shopping and parties and fake exuberance and Ho-ho-ho-ing your way through the whole month.

Most of all, I learned Christmas doesn’t have to fade away so quickly afterwards. We don’t have to banish it to the back of the closet so fast, we can hang on a little bit, cherish it.

I adapted myself to this liturgical way of “doing” Christmas, assuming that this was the way to resolve the old angst-ridden hollowness I’ve been talking about. I thought that by refraining from all the hokey Christmas buildup, I’d really drill down to the Meaning of it all. And I thought all of this would fill me, satisfy me, with the reality of Christ’s birth. Like something warm and sweet and… Okay, fine! If the feeling also tasted faintly of cocoa I wouldn’t complain either.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t. The Meaning of Christmas has yet to fill me like a spiritual hot chocolate.

Actually, looking back on the years since I’ve started observing Christmas “orthodox-ly,” at least to the best of my capacity, I’d say Christmas feels even more hollow than ever before—but with less butter cookies. It’s easy to throw myself into doing more things to make the hollowness disappear: praying, confessing, reading Scripture… Anything to fill the void.

All such responses are what my husband would call Attempts to Control the Situation (ACSs). We want God/ all of reality to behave according to our idea of what’s right—which (purely by coincidence, mind you) happens to revolve around making sure we get what we need and want, when we need and want it. We also want global events to conform to this reality—sometimes because we genuinely care about the refugees, but other times because we don’t want to trouble ourselves with the unalterable reality of incongruity in this world.

*

This year, I’ve found a new response to the hollowness. Or rather, it has found me.

Whatever the case,  find myself suddenly grateful for the Hollowness. Needing it. I live in a world where history—or at least the grimmest parts of it—tends to repeat itself. Where the incongruities and tensions are mounting.

In turning to God this year, I find the hollowness is alive and well, and I am glad. I’m slowly seeing that the Hollowness—my longstanding Christmas companion—was never hollowness at all, but rather Grief. Grief for the way reality becomes flattened without the Incarnation, without the love of God actualized. Grief for the way I see reality flattened in my own life, and that of all human endeavoring. Grief for what humanity loses when we don’t love our neighbor or God with our whole hearts. Grief that does not seek to fix or control. Grief that is just, for the time being, grief.

And here is another difficult thing I’m stumbling my way towards: maybe this restless, emptying kind of grief is the whole point of Advent. Maybe it’s not about getting filled but about coming up a bit unfilled. Maybe it’s about feeling, experiencing, testifying to the emptiness. The Darkness. The Cold. The Void. The Shallowness. Whatever name you give it.

Emptiness—and not just to get our fill once Christmas does come, but to incarnate the emptiness long after Christmas.

6 comments:

  1. This just nails it, and really drives home what it means to be waiting for the One True Light to come and fill the darkness. It makes one realise how much she really does have that heart-hole that only Christ can fill. Thank you for this.

    1. Thanks, Stacey! I like the God-shaped hole analogy from Pascal. 🙂 Happy waiting and a blessed Nativity feast to you. -NMR

  2. This is a beautiful piecethat really resonates with me – thank-you! It certainly puts a new perspective on the hollow emptiness I have felt around Christmas, especially since becoming Orthodox – and I think that this sadness can indeed strengthen us in our faith, letting the hurt and pain be changed alchemically to run like liquid gold in our veins to fortify us in our quest for God.

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