“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’” (Matthew 2:13)
The best way I’ve found to read the New Testament Advent story is against its historical backdrop. An aggressively militant imperial occupier had invaded the ancient Levant, annexing it and subjugating various nations, bringing sorrow and suffering to countless peoples.
Sound all too familiar? As we observe this 2022 Advent season, such pain afflicts countless souls in our own time, particularly in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. It is much as it was at that first Christmastide. Back then, though, it was a cruel, murderous puppet tyrant of the imperial master. He pursued the defenseless populace, among which was the Holy Family, forcing them to flee as refugees. Today, a would-be emperor unlawfully torments a sovereign neighboring nation, lobbing bombs and firing missiles at hospitals, schools, and residences.
This Advent, millions of displaced persons languish in refugee camps or roam the dangerous countryside in Ukraine. Wives and children — separated from husbands and fathers fighting in battle, most as vulnerable non-professional soldiers — sit anxiously, worried for their loved ones.
The stretch of this sorrowful Christmas will be longer than it might be elsewhere because the Ukrainian Orthodox Feast of the Nativity occurs in January based on the Julian calendar. Still, the government observes the Gregorian calendar date of December 25, elongating the season.
For Ukrainians, the threat of deadly and destructive attacks, the missing loved ones lost to an unnecessary conflict, the upended environment in their own and other countries, and the disruption of life as they have known it no doubt leave them yearning for deliverance. The prophetic promises of salvation are, for today’s believers, the same source of strength they were for those early ones. Advent is a period of active waiting as the anticipation of those who came before us is recalled, awaiting their coming deliverer.
At Advent and Christmas, Ukrainian believers look forward to the return of the Savior. At the same time, these brave Christians culminate this season by celebrating his first coming at Bethlehem, and with it the incarnation of the Divine. Finally, they hold onto the promise in that great angelic declaration of “Peace on Earth, and goodwill towards all.”
Notwithstanding the anguish of this Ukrainian Advent, no doubt there will be episodes of comfort, hope, and even joy that will break through the gloom of a miserable and undeserved war with all its deeply personal, communal, and traumatic losses.
Our Ukrainian friends teach us how to long patiently for a deliverer. The good news at Advent is that they have such a deliverer, and they will have him again — but they must wait a little longer while they do the work to save themselves and others. Ukrainians seem very good at doing just that. Let us learn from their remarkably durable faith.
Rev. Rob Schenck, D.Min., is author of Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscover of Faith, Hope, and Love and president of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, D.C.