It’s not surprising that the topic of lament is generally ignored in November and December. During this time, when sparkling window displays surround us and manic Christmas music streams from every department store, lament seems shockingly discordant with the season—an inappropriate drifting from “the Christmas spirit.” Though some churches do seek to minister to those who experience grief, loss, and loneliness during Advent, lament is not generally a part of our church services.
The church calendar, however, tells a different story. While Christmas is indeed a joyous feast celebrating Christ’s incarnation, it begins on Christmas Eve and extends long after our thoughts turn to the New Year. Advent, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve, is a season of fasting. It’s a time of sober preparation for Christ’s second coming as we anticipate his incarnation. It’s a time of waiting for the coming of salvation.
Advent is, in fact, a season of lament—a season in which we cry out to God to change what’s not in alignment with God’s character and kingdom. But often we skip over the fast in favor of the feast—pushing forward toward Christmas and ignoring Advent altogether.
Naming the Fear
One of the main reasons churches don’t include lament in their gathered worship (not just during Advent, but any time of year) is this: they’re afraid that doing so would remove joy from their midst.
When asked what he thought about including lament in worship, the pastor of one large congregation responded, “People should be able to leave their problems at the door and come in and worship, come into a space of freedom where they can just praise God! It’s part of my job to get their eyes off their circumstances so they can fix their eyes on Jesus.”
That response is not uncommon. Many pastors and worship leaders think that if they include lament in the regular worship of their church, the congregation will sink into despondency. We’ve all met people who suck the light out of a room when they enter, or visited a church that leaves us feeling heavy and taxed with a grief we can’t even name. These are not people we generally enjoy being around; they’re not churches to which we return. We certainly wouldn’t want to emulate their suffocating darkness.
This is a legitimate fear. Misunderstood or misused, lament could lead to this type of darkness. But there is more to fear in the exclusion of lament than there is in its inclusion. When we fail to incorporate lament in worship, we cultivate an inauthentic faith and rob our congregations of true joy.
The world is a broken place, and we are a broken people. To sing only songs of praise and joy, to read only Scriptures that point to victory and speak of our blessedness, is to exist in an alternate reality. Imagine the song “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy” playing over the opening scenes of the film Saving Private Ryan, and you’ll have a good idea of what I’m talking about.
If we focus only on praise, only on triumph, only on happiness in our worship, then something is wrong. When the church ignores lament in public worship, it essentially denies the harsher realities of life that exist in the realm of faith. When that happens, our faith depends on mood and circumstance rather than on the character and person of God, and the central assertion of the psalms—that the Lord reigns—only seems true during those times when praise springs easily from our lips.
If I’m supposed to “leave my problems at the door,” I learn that God doesn’t care about my problems; God isn’t involved in the aspects of my life that contain grief, anger, confusion, or fear. God doesn’t reign there.
A genuine faith affirms that God reigns even in the midst of our own personal darkness, even in the midst of the darkness in which the world still flounders, until Christ comes again. Even here, God reigns. “I am poured out like water,” says the psalmist, “and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. . . . You lay me in the dust of death” (Ps. 22:14-15). Even here, God reigns.
The psalms of lament issue bold statements of need—a clear picture of the realities that beset the psalmist. Do our worship services do the same? If not, perhaps we should consider whether we are affirming the reign of God over all parts of life, or merely praising him from within a bubble where dark reality is not allowed to intrude.
While lament for a world that is not aligned with God’s character and purpose is necessary in its own right, it also serves as a valuable training ground for our faith and for the faith of our congregations.
Grieving the loss of his wife, C. S. Lewis notes, “If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labeled ‘Illness,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Death,’ and ‘Loneliness.’ I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t” (A Grief Observed, HarperCollins, 2001, p. 37).
Lament can be a means of training ourselves and others to “trust the rope.” Affirming God’s reign in the struggles within our congregation and within our world makes us better able to affirm God’s reign in our own lives when struggle comes. Rather than being based on circumstance, our faith is based on God.
Maybe this still sounds grim to you. Maybe you’re afraid that recognizing pain and sorrow in worship is bound to drag us down and cause us to forget the victory that Christ has already won or forget God’s good gifts and marvelous blessings.
In fact, not only is joy inherent within biblical lament, but joy arrived at this way, through tears, is true joy rather than false circumstantial happiness. When I can affirm God’s reign in the midst of my problems, I experience the trust and peace that blossoms into true joy.
At Regent College I organized a chapel service whose central text was Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus began on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As I introduced the service with a brief word about lament, I looked up. Sitting near the front of the chapel was a friend of mine who had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
During the service we moved through the entire heart-rending text of Psalm 22, using various art forms. After the final passage of the psalm was read (“He has done it!”), a dancer came out and danced to a spiritual: “Ain’t no grave, gonna hold this body down . . .” She danced like she was going to jump right out of her skin—a dance of pure joy.
My friend nearly got up and walked out of the chapel after my introduction. She didn’t think she could handle lament. She didn’t want to wallow in grief; she wanted to live for the short time she had left. I don’t know what kept her in her seat, but she stayed. She said later, “I needed that. I needed to grieve with Jesus—to shout at God, and to listen for an answer. But I was completely unprepared for the absolutely overwhelming wave of joy that descended on me as I watched that girl dance.”
Waiting for Christmas
I’m not suggesting that you should disregard songs and words of praise and triumph this Advent, or any other time. They are part of the Christian life and of the worship of the gathered church, for the grave is empty! But don’t forget lament. Without it, your congregation may struggle to experience genuine faith and real joy. Christ has already come—but he is yet to come.
Imagine Israel waiting and hoping for a Christ who took decades and centuries to arrive. Today we are waiting for Christ to come again—and the world is still full of sin and sorrow. Is it any wonder, then, that the season of Advent should be a time of fasting? It’s also a time of lament in which we acknowledge the realities of the world and of our lives and proclaim God’s reign in the midst of darkness—while we wait for the light.
What if we held Christmas back just a little this year, in order to fully enter into Advent? What if we took the time to really wait and watch for Christ’s coming? What if we only sang the chorus of “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” after the final verse—can you imagine how much louder that chorus would resound?
Including Lament in Advent Worship
- Place some of Israel’s laments in the context of our current world situation as we wait for Christ to come again—look to the psalms and the prophets for inspiration.
- Spend time in the genealogies. Perhaps read a genealogy each Sunday of Advent as a symbol of generations waiting for Christ to come. Consider listing generations of families in your own church who have been waiting together for Christ’s second coming.
- Each Sunday, choose a world event or situation over which to pray “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”
- Save the chorus of “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” until you have finished singing all its verses, having first introduced it as a means of waiting with Israel. Even better, try singing one verse each Sunday of Advent, singing all the verses again on Christmas Eve or morning before finally breaking into the chorus. Make sure you sing the chorus several times at that point—people will be ready for it!
- Consider marking the shift into Advent and then again into Christmas through the use of visual arts in your church. Keep Advent decorations sparse, focusing on the deep purple that is the symbolic color of penitence and fasting. For Christmas Eve, let color explode in your sanctuary: hang colorful banners, put up a tree and add lights and colored fabrics. Let the season of fasting amplify the season of joy that follows.