I had never quite thought of the season of Advent like this before.
As many of you know very well, I have an adult child with disabilities. He has two occasions he most looks forward to each year, and indeed measures the passage of time against – Christmas and his birthday, And yes, its for the obvious reasons – he loves the gifts. So whatever we might intend or not, in our home the weeks before Christmas (the time liturgically known as Advent) have long been a period of unabashed, teetering-on-the-edge-of-uncontrollable, barely contained, building excitement and anticipation. Just waiting to explode! Its one of the reasons I love Christmas. That kind of infectious joy cannot be quarantined.
But…, Advent, as a result was a relatively pallid time – just the impatient, hold-your-breath, twiddling your thumbs, cant-we-get-through-this-any-quicker, are-we-there-yet, in-between time. Not of much value in itself. Though the chocolate-filled Advent calendars of more recent years help make the waiting more tolerable.
And then, Monday evening I read Debie Thomas’s always thoughtful, usually provocative, and occasionally mind-blowing reflection on the Common Lectionary reading(s) for the week from the bible. (If you haven’t come across the Lectionary before, its the cunning – and amazingly – almost universal agreement across most Christian churches across the globe to divide up all the bits of the bible into bite-sized bits each week so that over three years you’ll have read the whole bible – even the annoying, confusing or hard to fathom bits. Its a great protection from never wandering from your own safe little favourite verses, and takes you down some remarkable rabbit holes if you are up for it!) You can find a great commentary on each week’s Common Lectionary reading(s) and lots of other useful resources for progressive Christians at Journey With Jesus.
Thomas’ reflections on the readings for the first week of Advent are called Because You Hid Yourself. I suddenly saw Advent in a different light. In her reflection, Thomas makes the interesting point that Advent is effectively a time of re-adjustment.
Unlike modern-day uptight Christians, posturing cheap cheer and platitudes, the characters of the bible, especially the Old Testament, did not try and smooth over their disappointments with God. They were not afraid, when the world was going to hell in a basket, not just to name the ‘elephant in the room’ but to yell angry, disappointed abuse at their God who seemed to have gone missing in action. You cant read this week’s readings from Psalms and Isaiah without being stung by their unflinching honesty.
In a world infected with evil, dishonesty, suffering, power plays and pain, they desperately wanted their all-powerful deity to intervene and put things right. We, too, need to be honest in “a culture of denial and spin, apathy and hedonism”. We, too, need God to show up. Thomas continues:
I am always struck by the difference between the Biblical passages we read during Advent, and the ones we shift to when Christmas finally arrives. This week, Isaiah longs for a Very Big God to do Very Big Things. Recalling the history of the Exodus, he asks God to once again do “awesome deeds” — deeds that will make the mountains quake and the nations tremble. Come to us as fire, he pleads. Fire that kindles and burns, fire that sets the world boiling. Who among us has not prayed such prayers? For the past nine months, my prayers have been as outsized as Isaiah’s: Bring an end to the pandemic. Protect the most vulnerable. Strengthen healthcare workers. Help the unemployed. Spare the children. Save the world!
But why stop there? Why not go further? Eradicate all illness. Clean up the mess in Washington D.C. End world hunger. Root out corruption. Destroy systemic racism. Thwart corporate greed. Protect this wounded planet before we ravage it past saving, and most of all shield us, O Lord, from our sinful, self-destructive selves. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
I don’t believe I can — or should — stop praying these prayers. God is big, and when I come to God in prayer, dreaming of a just and wholly redeemed world, I know I’m dreaming a tiny version of God’s own dream. But during Advent, I am asked to prepare myself for something else. Someone else. Someone so unexpected and so small, I’m tempted to either laugh or cry at the thought of him. The world is falling apart, my heart is exhausted, people are dying, and God chooses to send me … a baby?
Objects may appear bigger when looking through a glass darkly. This is the scandal of Christmas – of a shocking unpredictable God. We were expecting, hoping for, even demanding a god in our own image – only bigger, more powerful, with more super powers to fight our battles and put us in a privileged, triumphant position. Instead the image of God gently asks to appear in us.
What are we to make of this? The God who is limitless chooses limits: one womb, one backwater town, one bygone century, one brief life, one agonizing death. The salvation we long for is not the salvation God brings. These are not easy or comfortable truths to accept; they’re truths to wrestle with hard and long. Truths to weep over. Truths to receive with gentleness and care.
This may need some time to adjust our expectations.
Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of God again. Once they have seen God in the stable, they can never be sure where God will appear or to what lengths God will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation God will descend in wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.
This may need some time to adjust our expectations.
Come Christmas, I want to be ready to receive God as God is. Not as I might wish God to be, or insist God become. Advent is my time to prepare for the Saviour who is.
This may need some time to adjust our expectations – will four weeks be enough?