11/26/2010 10:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Understanding the Truth of Advent by Acknowledging the Reality of Death

Our 9-year-old son loves Legos. Lego Star Wars, Lego City, Lego Harry Potter, Lego Wii games, Lego pajamas. If they make it in Legos, he wants it. So, when I happened to find a Lego Advent Calendar, I quickly scooped it up.

In our family, as soon as the turkey coma wears off after Thanksgiving, we begin trucking down from the attic our Christmas decorations. We have collections of angels, carved St. Nicholas statues, hoards of Nutcrackers, nativity scenes of all shapes and sizes and, of course, an Advent calendar. The kids negotiate with the seriousness of a NATO peace accord the rotation of who gets to do the calendar each day; our excitement growing with each passing day as Christmas comes into view.

This year we will use the new Lego Advent calendar which consists of a fairly large box with 25 small, sealed compartments to open each day. Within each compartment rests a package of Lego pieces to assemble and then display. Already, I began to wonder what Christmas theme the Lego Advent calendar might highlight. Would there be a little Lego baby Jesus? Lego Magi? Lego donkey? Lego angels perhaps?

But, no. From what I can tell from the pictures, the calendar is fairly devoid of all religious connotation. A benign snowman here, a happy sled over there and a jolly Santa Claus driving a train full of toys. An idyllic, Bing Crosby croon-worthy scene for sure, but far from religious and definitely not reflective of the themes of Advent.

So why call it an Advent calendar? Why not just call it a "Count Down to Christmas with Legos Set?" or "A Lego December Calendar with only 25 Days" for the literal-minded among us? Should we call something an Advent calendar when it in no way alludes directly or indirectly to the themes or scriptures that shape the liturgical season? Should we as Christian people and families cave in to the secular expressions of the season or should we call things what they truly are?

I currently serve in hospice care and we often wrestle with this same question in relation to death and dying. Society comes up with all kinds of euphemisms in order to avoid saying the "d" word.

Mr. Smith passed away. (Like a football? No receiver was open, so the QB threw into the sidelines?)

Mr. Smith went to a better place. (Disneyland? The beach?)

Mr. Smith is no longer with us. (He's in the bathroom...)

Mr. Smith expired. (Went bad? Like sour milk or rotten eggs?)

Instead, our hospice team of nurses, social workers, aides, chaplains, volunteers and physicians encourage each other and those we serve to simply say, "Mr. Smith died."

When we simply define what has happened, we are able to allow the reality of death to sink into our minds and hearts in ways that flowery expressions and idioms cannot. Accepting mentally, emotionally and spiritually that the death of someone we love has really happened can take months, even years to fully assimilate into the new identity we forge after a loss. As many grief and loss experts stress, from Dr. Alan Wolfelt to Dr. J. William Wooden, journeying through the darkness and pain of grief is absolutely necessary if we wish to adapt to the loss and learn resiliency and hope that is shaped by the memory of our deceased loved one.

In the same way that we may wish to avoid the tasks, thoughts and emotions of mourning, we may wish to skip over the season of Advent and just get to the celebration of Christmas. For as Charles Riepe acknowledges in Living the Christian Seasons, "Advent is dedicated to the last things, to death, judgment, heaven and hell, but above all to Jesus' glorious coming to complete his Easter work." Or as Alfred Delp writes,

Advent is the time for rousing. We are shaken to the very depths, so that we may wake up to the truth of ourselves. The primary condition for the fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender. We must let go of all our mistaken dreams, our conceited poses and arrogant gestures, all the pretenses with which we hope to deceive ourselves and others.

And we do all this, all this contemplating of end times and darkness because as John Navone writes,

Darkness provides us with a therapeutic limit-experience, illuminating the meagerness of human resources for experiencing, understanding and communicating the divine. It reminds us that God alone has adequate idea of who God is and that even our most successful efforts at understanding God are inadequate. When darkness induces modesty, humility, faith and trust, it leads to communion with God as God really is.

Death, judgment, heaven and hell, confession, humility, darkness, preparing to welcome God into our world -- that might be asking a little much from a Lego set! And so, in fun, our family will build a Lego holiday world throughout the month of December, but our family will live Advent in much different ways. We will need worship and scripture, song and prayer, to truly walk the Advent path of humility and darkness that prepares us for the birth of a Messiah. And though it may take many years (thank God Advent cycles annually), perhaps the reality of who God is for us and a spirit of modesty, humility, faith and trust will permeate our lives a little bit more this year.