12/15/2014 03:10 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2015

Tumult and Advent

A few weeks ago, I was hard at work mid-day on a Friday. I was in an old, warm room in Yale's Harkness Hall. My audience was a group of academics from across the country who have taken on the same task: They are working with students to seek clemency for long-term prisoners in the federal system. Most of their clients are black men, caught up in a war on drugs that punished their acts of commerce more harshly than most acts of violence. I was talking about the specifics of the Constitution's Pardon Power, and how it could be used to free some of those men. It wasn't academic theorizing; we were talking about the nuts-and-bolts of how the project would work.

Outside the leaded-glass windows of the room, protesters had taken to the streets. Moving down Wall Street from Yale Law School, they passed a few dozen yards from where we were, chanting about police violence. A few among us quietly slipped out to join the protest, but most of us could not give up the precious little time we had to finish our work.

When we were done, we streamed into the street to head up to the law school for our next session. As we stepped into the road, we merged, seamlessly, with some of the hundreds of people headed back from the march. There was something deep and moving in that moment. There were two strands twining into a rope: one the expression of righteous anger, the other the quiet planning to make things different. Both were, and are, necessary.

The liturgical time we are in, Advent, has a less comfortable duality. To many Christians, Advent is a time for stillness and waiting. We are called to reflection and expectation in those days leading up to Christmas. Outside of the quiet spaces we might create, though, the secular season of "Christmas" has already begun. It is marked by blaring commercials, hectic travel, and parties. The Christmas season has none of the principled focus of the Ferguson protests, but it is tumult, too.

It's boring by now to hear Christians complain about the commercialization of Christmas, and the insistent demand that retailers say "Merry Christmas" when we should be thinking about Advent is just strange. Still, there remains a jarring collision between the core values of a Christian Advent and a secular Christmas.

Perhaps one way to reconcile these two simultaneous events is to see the Christmas mayhem as a general call to something strong and real. After all, isn't there buried somewhere deep in even the crassest Hallmark Christmas movie a cry for meaning and connection? Perhaps if we can hear the noise of it all in a general way, like a crowd in the distance, it can make our Advent better, not worse, by emphasizing the need of the world for what we have to offer.

I'm not a protester, blocking traffic. That's not what I do. However, I hear them, and they urge me towards what I am fit for-- the quiet planning of something better. I am not opposed by them; I am propelled by them. Perhaps my Advent can benefit similarly from the tumult of the season, and on Christmas day we will tumble into the street together to celebrate.