Advent and the repair of a liberating love

Amy Kim Kyremes-Parks reflects on the celebration of Advent, with its proximity to Thanksgiving, and the nation’s troubling past of erasing non-White voices and cultures.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

I was raised hearing the false narrative about Thanksgiving as a celebration of harmony where Indigenous people (always called Indians) welcomed the nice European pilgrims to the land. They had a feast, and everyone lived happily ever after. Unfettered patriotism and camaraderie replaced the truth about the atrocities of genocide and colonization that marked this sinful time in the history of our country. So many of us grew up reenacting this fairytale fiction disguised as history, complete with costumes and feasts. And if that wasn’t enough, many added the practice of expressing what they are thankful for as a way of commemorating this day of death.

Even as I write this, I recognize how it lands in my body and in my mind. Telling the truth about a beloved national holiday is unsettling, which is why it is hard to do. Also, why write about Thanksgiving when I was asked to reflect on the Latine experience of Advent? It’s because in our context as Protestant, Presbyterian and American Christians it is important to examine Advent’s connection to Thanksgiving when they closely follow one another on the calendar and together serve as the beginning of the “holiday season” in the United States.

According to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) website, “‘Advent’ means ‘coming’ or ‘arrival.’ During the season of Advent, we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world and watch with expectant hope for his coming again. In its historical origins, the season of Advent was patterned after the season of Lent, a six-week period of penitence and preparation for Easter. Similarly, the four weeks of Advent present an opportunity for communal discernment and personal examination, as the church prepares to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord and looks with hope for Christ’s return.”

Immediately after our holiday of giving thanks we begin to turn the corner toward Advent in our tradition. It’s a time where we celebrate the anticipation of God coming not just near us, but the Word made flesh to dwell among us. But really our practice is, or should be, more than that. It is about personal examination and communal discernment — right after we give thanks for a false narrative about relational harmony that continues to destroy our humanity.

Breathe: it’s a reminder to myself and to you. Advent for me starts with telling the truth about who we are, where we are going and how I will receive and welcome the transformational abundant love offered in the birth of Jesus.

I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, starting in the late 1970s. As one might imagine, there were no Presbyterian Latine families on my block or in my elementary school. When Advent came around, the only indication I had of the season’s change was the Christmas tree went up at church along with Chrismons, other greenery and paraments. I noticed the worship hymns changed and that they were always the same each December. More than anything, I noticed the Advent wreath. Anticipation over which family would light the candles and ultimately the candlelit finale on Christmas Eve with everyone singing Silent Night, candles in hand, lights off and a warm glow on each face. This was Advent.

As a child, I loved our World Book encyclopedias. My parents added the Christmas Around the World subscription to our order. We received a new book from another country each year along with an Advent calendar. Getting these books was a treat and an annual window into a broader, more global understanding of how Christmas and Advent were marked around the world.

These are fond memories and yet none of them are directly connected to the communities of culture my ancestors descended from. For so many of us BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), Advent and Christmas have also been methodically colonized by White supremacy. One of the characters of White supremacy culture as defined by the prophet Tema Okun is “One Right Way.” Once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it. This belief is connected to the belief that the right way is the “perfect” way and therefore perfection is both attainable and desirable.

As a child of a Dominican immigrant through adoption and Indigenous Spanish Basque parents who came together in Salt Lake City in the late 1960s, the drive to be model minorities and assimilate was a considerable factor in shaping them individually and together. And, though unintentional, it was a part of how they forged their identity as a couple and, once children were born, was also passed on. With this assimilation came a sort of erasure of the possibility of holding on to any kind of traditions from their cultures of origin. Inherited traditions around Advent and Christmas were little to none. Native language was lost for my father and the Spanish we heard was through my mother.

At the same time, I am a proud third generation Latine Presbyterian from Utah. My grandfather, Juan Nepomuceno Archuleta, graduated from Menaul School in its first graduating class. Since Menaul was founded by Presbyterians, Juan was resolute in his family’s connection to the PC(USA). He and his wife, Manuelta, attended Springville Presbyterian Church in Utah and raised their children in this faith. I hold this history as a treasure. I also recognize that historically White Presbyterian churches hold traditions and practices around holy days as sacrosanct. There has not typically been room for variation, let alone individual cultural expression.

An excerpt from the Companion to the Book of Common Worship (Geneva Press, 2003, 96) reads:

In Advent, we expectantly wait for the One who has already come. We anticipate the promised justice of God’s new world, yet we praise God who raised the “righteous branch” to rule with justice and righteousness. We hope for the restoration of the afflicted, the tormented, and the grieving, yet we delight that healing has come in Christ. We long for the beating of swords into plowshares, yet we rejoice that the Prince of Peace has appeared. We yearn for the barren deserts of our inner cities to flourish, yet we laud the desert Rose that has bloomed. We dream of the land where lions and lambs live in harmony, yet we acclaim the child born to lead us into the promised land.

Christ has come! Christ is risen! Christ will come again! In Advent, we are living between the first and the second coming of the Lord. The dialectical tension of maranatha [alternately translated “Come, our Lord!” or “Our Lord has come”] – placing us between memory and hope, past and future – may strengthen our Advent liturgies. Perhaps we need to cling to the ancient cry of maranatha! and its paradoxical meanings so we may freely embrace “the new thing” prophesied by Isaiah (Isaiah 43:19) that God is doing among us right now. The tension and paradox we find in Advent shapes our celebrations during the season.

When my spouse Justin and I started our family, we did what we could to focus on Advent as a time of preparation such as lighting the Advent wreath at dinner and talking about what it meant to have God so present in our lives. We also tried to emphasize the holiness of our space together rather than the buildup to a commercialized Christmas.

We doubled down on purging the White images of Jesus in our Christmas decorations as our children grew. We have started learning how to cook more Latine dishes that are a part of our native holiday celebrations.

As our children have aged into early adulthood, we no longer hold Thanksgiving as a holiday but more as a remembrance and time to hold space for the land and ancestors who were murdered and taken away. Personally, I have begun to reframe Advent as a time to embrace my identity and couple it with the promise that Christ’s coming is about the liberation of all.

I pray we as a church can circle back to holding Advent as a space to reflect, repair and take action toward the liberative love we celebrate becoming flesh among us.