This December, we are publishing a series of essays that reflect on the Advent season and grapple with its apocalyptic lectionary scriptures. Click here to view other essays in this series.
Every so often, a passage from scripture opens up to us in an important new way. This happened to me recently when preparing to read for church and revisiting the first chapter of the book of Ruth. The simple story I know so well was a revelation to me, one I’m carrying with me into Advent.
I remembered the familiar “your people will be my people” refrain Ruth tells Naomi after her sons both die and she returns home. Yet reading over the passage one morning, it was as though the words glimmered and glowed:
“‘I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.’ So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving as the barley harvest was beginning (1:21-22).”
Why did these words strike me as miraculous? At face value, they seem horrible. I expected the passage to be about Ruth’s commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi. But as I read the chapter in its entirety, it hit me that Ruth’s commitment isn’t diminished by Naomi’s bitterness that the “Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” If anything, Ruth’s loyalty is strengthened. To light a candle, a wick must burn. It is as though Naomi’s bitterness fuels Ruth’s love. After Naomi’s lament, there is no record of Ruth trying to fix anything, to cheer up her mother-in-law in that moment. Scripture simply says: “So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth.” And Ruth’s claim, “my people will be your people,” is embodied as she goes with Naomi anyway, despite, because of Naomi’s suffering.
This reading of the passage comforts me, just as the rhythms and rituals of Sunday comfort me. None of us is a stranger to darkness. Ruth teaches us to be light in the way a candle is light, steadily burning. It helps me feel at home in the winter season, when the light begins to change. The growing darkness corresponds with what it means to be human. We, or someone close to us, are suffering.
Still, many of us feel as though we are not allowed to complain or grieve aloud to God in the company of others. In my work as a spiritual director, people often immediately self-correct after opening up about their sadness. I have a lot to be grateful for. Other people have had it worse. I know I shouldn’t complain. When I ask them about the origin of this voice, the one with all the “shoulds” and “should-nots” about expressing genuine grief, people speak about belonging. Expressing hardship in community most often results at attempts to fix or look-on-the-bright-side. These good intentions have an unintended result. People who are suffering end up feeling more alone.
Our desire to diminish despair may be especially profound during the Christmas season. The extraordinary gift of Jesus entering into the world raises our expectations for celebration. Plus, although Christmas is a Christian holiday, it’s part of our secular culture too. Cities host light parades to celebrate their seasonal decorations. Santa visits malls and shopping centers. Downtown markets pass out cocoa and cookies to encourage tourism. If we are alone during the Christmas season, if we grieve or despair while the world seems celebrating, our desolation grows. Yet here we sense the significance of Advent.
Naomi isn’t an example, by any means, of a woman who minimizes her grief. On the contrary, she calls herself afflicted. She literally tells people to change her name to “Mara,” meaning bitter. This is where Ruth follows her; this is how the light of Ruth’s love gets in. Miraculously, Ruth does not retreat from Naomi’s pain, or one-up Naomi with her own expression of grief. In the same way, Advent doesn’t protect us from suffering and pain. Advent helps us redefine our pain, reminding us that affliction doesn’t mean we are alone. When we can sit alongside one another in the darkness without needing to solve or fix, our affliction can bring us closer to the people we love. It can become the fuel that burns in order that light may shine. In Advent, it is because of our darkness that Christ comes to us. Ruth’s love deepens when Naomi’s bitterness is known. It deepens when she follows Naomi home.
Maybe the first book of Ruth isn’t a passage we’d traditionally consider an Advent scripture. Then consider these words from Isaiah. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). How fitting is it, then, that in Ruth begins the lineage of Jesse, the father of David, the lineage culminating in Christ. Ruth, like God in Jesus Christ, wades into the darkness with us, refusing to abandon, and leads us toward light. Who is Jesus but the incarnation of a God who chooses to make humanity his people, and goes where his people go–accompanying them during profound suffering? Jesus, the incarnation of a God who remains faithful to his people to the point of death, an incarnation of a God who continually seeks his beloved. If we fail to recognize the darkness, the power of Ruth’s commitment is lost. If we do not name our suffering, we are certain to suffer alone.
Naomi’s words in Ruth come alive on the page for this reason. The love of Ruth for her mother-in-law parallels the love God has for humanity. Ruth’s commitment echoes Christ’s incarnation. Naomi’s darkness alludes to our Advent darkness. Ruth’s coming alongside instructs us on how to come alongside suffering, letting go of a need to fix or control and instead “being with” in the darkness. Advent does not remove our pain, but transforms how we see in the dark.
This Advent, as I go about the routines and rhythms of what it means to be a mother, I’ll light a candle, not to conquer the darkness but to transform it. As the flame burns atop the wick, I’ll be reminded that Ruth does not abandon Naomi in her darkest hour but keeps beside her. In my ordinary life may I be a companion to my own suffering and the suffering of others. This Advent, may Naomi’s darkness bid me to look for Christ’s light. May the wick burn as the light grows.