The Nature of Waiting

Photo: Mohammed GH, Unsplash

”A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.”1 — Henri Nouwen

The Annunciation is a liminal moment, a threshold moment. In many of the paintings of the 14th century, we see the angel of God approaching the girl Mary in a sunlit, airy space that looks like it could have been designed by a group of Swedish architects. The angel pauses on the threshold at a reserved distance from Mary, who waits with an air of shy expectation.

It is a pause between times, the last of “Before the Common Era” and what will become known in most of the world as the Old Testament, and the Common Era’s New Testament—all of that in the future—but for us, looking back, the defining hinge of history, after which millions of people will set their moral compass to the true north of Jesus Christ.

The announcement itself, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, not only breaks the news that a certain thing will happen, but also why it will be so: “You shall conceive and bear a son,” because “He will be great . . . And he will be king over Israel for ever.”

This is a mixed message for Mary. She is to bear the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah who will fulfill the hopes of the nation. But she has no husband. Actually, she is betrothed to be married, but social norms and a conscience in good working order makes the how of conception beyond the possible. She is not thinking outside the physical means of intercourse; why should she? There were myths, stories of girls possessed by the gods, but these were pagan deities, capricious and rapacious, not at all the way of the God she had been taught to worship. She is “deeply troubled.”

The angel speaks of “overshadowing”. “The power of the Most High,” he says, by way of explanation. The girl has perhaps some inkling of what this might mean, but she hears the last part most clearly—the child will be the Son of God.

But there is more: her kinswoman, Elizabeth, cursed as barren for these many years, is pregnant, six months on. Nothing is impossible for God, says the angel. The girl looks through the air between them, seeing a child, a teenager, a man. The edges of her vision contract to a brightly-lit tunnel, rimmed with refracted light in colors that glow. She hears the sound of the angel’s voice far away. She blinks, but she is still inside the tunnel and inside the room, and her body is curved into the light and she is inside her body.

The angel’s words have weight and surface. She holds them in her hands and feels them burning cold. The motion of the world slows and stops; she can feel it inside her like a pendulum coming to rest. She senses that her words will trip the cog and restart the world. But first she must breathe. “I am,” she inhales silently—and holds it a moment—then exhales with “Here I am. I am the Lord’s servant . . .” The angel nods; the world shudders into motion once again.

Now she will learn the inner nature of what it means to wait.

***

Henri Nouwen, Dutch Catholic priest, counselor, and spiritual writer, describes a spirituality of waiting. Those who wait, he says, do so because of a promise. It is a waiting with a point, a telos, to it. The promise grows in them like a seed. “It is always a movement from something to something more,” says Nouwen.2

Their waiting is anything but passive. “The secret of waiting is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun.”3 It is to be fully present in the moment, to be ready when the moment is ripe for fulfillment. It is to do in each moment that which we can, to prepare our lives to receive this blessing—repentance, forgiving others, prayer, opening ourselves to perceive the holy in the mundane.

But the waiting is also patient. A present-centered, actively waiting person is willing to stay in the moment, because that is where the deliverance will occur, no matter when it arrives. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary—each of them attentive to the moment and willing to listen. Elizabeth and Mary nurture their present, says Nouwen, and that is why they can hear the angel.

And the waiting is open-ended. There is no constraint placed on it. This is the test of one’s patience, to wait in trust without trying to manipulate the future. This is never easy, but Nouwen says it is especially difficult to remain open-ended; we have many wishes pulling us this way and that. We wish, and when our wishes are not fulfilled, we are disappointed and try to move the pieces around to make them happen. Can we stay in that ever-present moment in time as it travels into an open-ended future?

Our wishes, tested over time and infused with patience, may grow into hopes that can outlive us. Hope that is larger than any of us is that which is surrendered to God. This is what we mean when we say we “live in hope.”

***

Part of what we must do when we read Scripture is to wield our imagination in service to our faith. Across thousands of years, melding through culture, religion, and story, we share our humanity at the points of grief, loss, despair, hope, joy.

We are trying to touch the hardness of the ground they walked on, the soft fold to the weave of her shawl as it drapes across her shoulders, the upward glance of the man tightening the saddle strap on the donkey, the ghosting of the donkey’s breath in the bite of cold in the night darkness.

Could we put ourselves in the place of Mary, Joseph, and their infant as they flee into the night before Herod’s murderous rampage? Can we feel the anxiety mixed with hope as they make their way across the desert to the relative safety of Egypt? What if they reached the border, only to be separated from each other and from their child? What if they had no idea where their child was or when he would be returned to them? Could we “be touched by the feeling of their infirmity,” or their “terror by night . . . Or the pestilence that stalks in darkness”?4

Here is the baby crying, red-faced and contorted. You know how the cry begins: the long, silent, intake of breath before the ear-splitting wail that goes on and on, the eyes clamped shut, the little fists balled up, the tension radiating from every pore. We can coo and sing and tiptoe around the manger, with the cattle lowing in the background, but sooner or later the Son of God will explode in anger without words.

There will be no point in bringing up the ordination of women or the inequity of wealth distribution or any of the myriad of injustices that flare up our moral energy. This is an infant and at this moment we can only try, with patience, to learn what he needs.

And in that wordless cry they begin to realize how much there is to learn and how they must wait for the child to develop in his time. There will be moments, flashes through the ordinary of something extraordinary; the quickness of understanding, the seeing through another’s fear to the innocence beneath. Mary will treasure these things in her heart as she waits.

In years to come, Mary will ask of him a favor to save face for her friends at the wedding of their daughter. “They are out of wine,” she will say, and he will respond, “What is that to me? My time is not yet come.”

He will not be hurried in his realization of who he is, but then he does awaken to it. What at first seems a request for magic he now sees as a simple desire for harmony and celebration. “Do as he tells you,” says his mother to the servants. “Fill the jars,” he says. And the best wine flourishes under his command. “This was the first of the signs,” says John in his gospel, “by which Jesus revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him.” In the timeless rituals of family and community, Jesus’ glory is revealed in time.

In the Advent season we learn to wait with patience for the coming of the Lord. In the darkest time of the year, in a time when many scoff at the light and flaunt their own darkness, we will find our light springing up from the humblest of births.

“Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,

Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”5

  1. Nouwen, Henri, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 2001, November 28.
  2. Nouwen, November 28.
  3. Nouwen, November 28.
  4. Ps. 91:5 NEB.
  5. Eliot, T. S. “East Coker” in Collected Poems 1090-1962. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1963, p. 185.

The Gymnasium for Underused Imaginations

Photo: Green Chameleon, Unsplash

”At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.”1

I suppose I write about the need for imagination so often because I’m never confident that I have enough to see me through to the end of the sentence I have begun. All writing is a movement of discovery, never more so than when we are diving into the waters of memory and hope, the springs which feed my need to write.

When I was growing up with my grandparents, inveterate readers themselves, I was encouraged to read early and often. They weren’t keen on comic books, however, so I grew up without those, and we didn’t have a television until I was in high school—and then only for “60 Minutes” and National Geographic specials. They were also suspicious of most fiction, seeing “made up” stories as a distraction from soul-building and a waste of time. An exception was made for poetry, however, and I darted through that doorway to the Victorian and Romantic poets first, and then to Frost, Poe, and many others in The Pocket Book of Modern Verse and Immortal Poems.

But I read a lot of fiction anyway behind closed doors. I read indiscriminately; not deeply, but enough that I had the beginnings of a reservoir of the Western canon to draw from as I wrote through high school and college.

Reading Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Gardner, Vonnegut, Bellow, and others, widened the limits of what was possible for me to imagine. It seemed the most wonderful thing to see a character in one’s mind and to follow that person through the moments of her life. The creation of such a character and the growing sense of one’s faith seemed like parallel paths, each asking for the next step to be taken without certainty, but rather with the allure of possibilities.

Annie Dillard’s fierce call to writers is to spend everything they’ve got every time they write. “Examine all things intensely and relentlessly,” she writes. “Do not leave it . . . Follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.”2

In the same way, I see the writing life as parallel to the life of faith. Both demand a concentrated intensity, both may be directed to the transcendent, both require the discipline to follow the truth where it may lead. And I can testify that to write is an exercise of one’s faith, especially when the next word seems far over the horizon.

I am recalling this now while realizing that retrieval of such memories brings them back to life from a state of suspended animation. Most of what we need from the past seems to seep into our consciousness unacknowledged. When we do summon a particular name or place or event, we are—okay, Iam—often left only with a dim outline of its shape, bereft of color and detail, waiting to be filled in later. Or to change the analogy: I am standing on the station platform waiting impatiently for the train to arrive—which it does—but only after I have driven out of the parking lot.

Given all this, it’s no wonder that much of my life seems fragmentary and elusive to the touch. Tracing one of many paths of personal experience from then until now is like trying to drive the Pacific Coast Highway after an earthquake. Still, I am learning to cherish these fragments. I can dump them out of the bag I carry, spread them out in front of me, and move them around.

It is in this retro-fitting that I begin to see the workings of grace in my life. Looking back, lines of fracture, moments of dislocation, the upthrust of forces beyond my control—all these begin to coalesce into something colorful and lively, as a crazy-quilt pattern begins to emerge. What I thought was tragedy now looks like comedy, and what seemed mundane is seen for the change agent it was. God took the chaos and gave it order. In retrospect, mere existence quickened at liminal points into genuine life.

August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright, thought of the characters in his plays as souls which are “agglomerations of past and present cultures, scraps from books and newspapers, fragments of humanity, torn shreds of once-fine clothing that has become rags, in just the way that a human soul is patched together.”3

This is certainly true for me; I have been on a life-long quest to understand how the selves that we are become the true self that Jesus so urgently warned us we could lose. Can we recognize what God is doing?

Honesty with oneself is paramount. Mary Karr, in her wonderful book, The Art of Memoir, remarks, “A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life.”4

Faith, like personal writing, asks us to plumb the depths of our character, diving deep to find the sources of our fear, our hope, the accumulated awareness of who we are so far. From these we give voice—our testimony, if you like—to what we have experienced. Mary Karr again: “Voice isn’t just a manner of talking. It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving that naturally stems from feeling oneself alive inside the past. That’s why self-awareness is so key.”5

We are asked, in the community of faith, to give an account of the “hope that is within us,” an exercise that arises in the moment, but draws on our submerged self-identity. That we are willing to do so does not mean that we are immune from fooling ourselves in the telling. “The trick to fashioning a deeper, truer voice,” advises Karr, “involves understanding how you might misperceive as you go along; thus looking at things more than one way. The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity.”6

Jill Kerr Conway, the author of two outstanding memoirs about leaving Australia and settling in America, writes that “What’s difficult and exhausting about writing as honest a memoir as you can, I think, is going back as a historian and, instead of just weltering in all those emotions, trying to think, ‘Why did it happen that way? What was really going on?’”7

“The unexamined life,” said Socrates, “is not worth living,” a measure of the importance he placed on self-reflection. To this I would add, “The unlived life is not worth examining,” and from there, gather the courage to say with the Psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”8

***

I have thought that some were born with imagination and others were not. Think of Tolkien, Dostoevsky, Ray Bradbury, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Toni Morrison. Or Dante, Homer, Isaiah, and the Apostle John. These are people who spun up whole worlds, languages, cultures, and characters as they were moved to do so through their imaginations stimulated by the Spirit.

Their native talent is undeniable; there are good reasons for admiring them as artists and cherishing their works. But now I think that imagination is a virtue, something that must be practiced until it becomes second nature, a la Aristotle. Thus, the difference between these artistic exemplars and the rest of us may be one of degree, rather than kind.

Now I think that faith and imagination have a lot in common. There is enough overlap between them that comparisons can be made, and territory explored. Faith is a gift from God, but the seed of imagination is in all of us. Faith is not certainty, or it would not be a risk; imagination, too, builds the path it is traveling. Both must be practiced in order to be real, and while “practice makes perfect” is not the point for either one, both must be exercised to have any effect.

Mark Oakley, Anglican priest, Dean of St. John’s College in Cambridge, England, and the author of books I return to often, believes that the Church can learn from theatre. He quotes Benedict Nightingale, who calls plays “the gymnasium for underused imaginations.” Oakley suggests this is a felicitous metaphor for the Church in the world. “Both are committed to heightened perception,” he says. Both the Church and the theatre are focused on the horizon of the world, but the Church wants to tilt that horizon toward the vertical. “It then transforms into a channel between the sacred and the human . . .”9

In this season of Advent, in these days leading up to the wonder of incarnation, with all its tragic beauty and humble beginnings, more than ever we need imagination and faith to speak and to write of the One who brings life out of death and beauty out of pain.

  1. Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1989, p. 75.
  2. Dillard, p. 78.
  3. Quoted in Oakley, Mark. The Collage of God. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001, p. 100.
  4. Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2015, p. 12.
  5. Karr, p. 36.
  6. Karr, pp. 48-49.
  7. Conway, Jill Kerr. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Edited by William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998, p. 51.
  8. Ps. 139:23.24, NRSV.
  9. Oakley, pp. 101-102.

A Scandal We Can Live For

1Crosses:ruben-bagues-549787-unsplash

He was in the form of God, but did not think to seize on the right to be equal to God . . . being born in the likeness of a human being; and being found in the guise of a human being, he humiliated himself and was obedient to the death, death on the cross. Philippians 2:7-8, Richmond Lattimore, translator

Every life that begins points forward to a death, a truth we mortals carry like a stone in our shoe.

Does every father grasped in the clenching fear and joyous awe of the birthing hour cast his mind forward to the death of his son? Perhaps Joseph did, caught up in a mystery whose dimensions seemed to waver in and out of focus with his young wife’s hoarse cries. There is no mention of a midwife in the Gospel nativity stories. Does Joseph deliver the child himself?

Questions like these are how we fumble our way to the heart of the nativity story. We ask them because we want to time-travel back, to be there in that moment to try to grasp how—no, why?—an infinite God plunges deep into our world in order to surface as an infant, an infant for whom the mere rumor of existence is enough to trigger a massacre.

From a reasonable perspective, it would be hard to find a less auspicious beginning for a clandestine King of kings and Lord of lords: a baby born into poverty under one of the most corrupt governments of an empire notable not only for its reach but also for its cruelty. From a revolutionary standpoint, chances for success in overthrowing the Empire hover around zero. I don’t think we can exaggerate how awful the odds are here.

Imagine the storyline pitched by the producers of a film company to the head of a major studio:

What kind of film is this?

It’s kind of an action-adventure, but with a strong underdog angle.

Let’s hear it.

Okay, a baby is born under mysterious circumstances to a poverty-stricken couple who have to flee to another country to avoid a massacre of all children under two by a corrupt and paranoid tyrant.

I see.

And the kid survives and grows up to form a roving band of —

Guerrilla fighters?

No. They go around this country healing people and teaching them about loving their enemies and turning the other cheek.

(silence)

And finally, he’s captured, all his friends desert him, and he’s killed.

Wait. He’s got no superpowers?

No.

No last-minute rescue mission?

No.

Too depressing. What’s the point?

Well, he comes back to life.

Like what, a zombie? That could work—

No, no zombies. He comes back to life and then after awhile he disappears.

And that’s it? Are you kidding me?

Well, he returns later and sorts everything out.

When?

When what?

When does he return?

Nobody knows, it’s just that—

Get outta my office.

We have an advantage over Joseph—we know that the end of his son’s story is the beginning of an even greater story. We know the end of our story, too, the one we share with our human community. What we cannot fathom is the beginning of this baby’s story.

The nativity scenes we witness in paintings are as peaceful and placid a scene as one could imagine. The baby Jesus coos and waves his little fists. Mary is dressed in robes of cerulean and white and gazes benignly on her infant son. The magi are there, having arrived not a moment too soon, but months after they set out from their city. In some of the paintings there are shepherds kneeling by the manger. They’ve already seen angels that night, a heavenly host of them, their burning towering forms lighting up the hills for miles around. Naturally, the shepherds are terrified, but it’s a terror that becomes raw energy; they race down off the hills and into the town. (How do they know where to go?) But they find the place and slip inside, some to kneel, some to stand in the shadows, panting and glancing at one another with wondering eyes.

***

The Coming

And God held in his hand

A small globe. Look, he said.

The son looked. Far off,

As through water, he saw

A scorched land of fierce

Colour. The light burned

There; crusted buildings

Cast their shadows; a bright

Serpent, a river

Uncoiled itself, radiant

With slime.

On a bare

Hill a bare tree saddened

The sky. Many people

Held out their thin arms

To it, as though waiting

For a vanished April

To return to its crossed

Boughs. The son watched

Them. Let me go there, he said.

— R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems

***

God must now think from behind the eyes of a human being. Those considerable limitations are what remains to work with. No superpowers here, just the steady consistency of vulnerability and love. Will that be enough?

If this really was the kairos, the right time for this intervention in Earth-history, we wouldn’t have seen it had we been there. Even if we had been in Jesus’ roving band of disciples, we couldn’t have understood it. As long as power meant violence to take down the enemy none of this would have made sense. And if we’re honest it still doesn’t make sense. The reason we accept it, this Incarnation, this embodiment of God in human flesh, is that we no longer see it as the skandalon, the scandal it really is. What kind of god would have the patience, not to mention the love, to work with creatures who resolutely kill everyone who offers them hope?

“The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation,” said C. S. Lewis in The Joyful Christian. “They say God became Man. . . Every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation.”

This is where it begins for us. It doesn’t really matter if we can’t figure out the biological status of a virgin birth or even if parthenos means a “young girl of marriageable age” versus a virgin who has never had sex. What matters is that we accept this gift of God become human, scandal and all.

Advent for me means the coming of the Christ-child into this world, through the back door of the world, under the silent stars of the world, for the world. It always catches me off-guard, which is good, because we should always be surprised at Advent. Surprised that the kingdom begins in such a quiet way; surprised that at least once during the year we can say in all honesty, that we were blind, but now we see; surprised that silence carries a deeper truth than we could think of on our own.

After surprise comes wonder, since Christ comes to us in every breath we take, every person we meet, in the dust on the road to Emmaus, in the waves we sink into, in the beauty of communion with one another. All of these are Advent moments; they give us a way to live inside the saying, ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the age.’

Photo: Ruben Bagues, Unsplash.com

No Guarantees

1ChildKiss:vince-fleming-487796-unsplash

“Communication as a bridge always means an abyss is somewhere near.” — John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod slaughtered every child of the age of two and under in Bethlehem and its surroundings, because he was trying to kill the king of the Jews whom the magi from the East had come to worship.

To put the Bethlehem massacre by Herod in its full horrific context, the writer of the gospel reaches back to the prophet Jeremiah’s lament for the slaughter of children in Ramah, an Ephraimite village eight miles north of Jerusalem, before those who remained were deported to Babylon. He needs a historical parallel of sufficient magnitude.

“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because

they are no more.”

Thus, the good news (for that is what euanggelion, the ‘gospel’, means) of the coming of the Christ child, the promised one, the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, unfolds in haste and secrecy in the midst of a bloodbath. But it has ever been so, as powerful and corrupt rulers are threatened by women and children.

The family escapes to Egypt, being warned in a dream, and they remain there—we don’t know how long—until news comes that Herod is dead. They make plans to return to Bethlehem, but Joseph is again warned off in a dream. Instead, they find their way north to Nazareth, a village in Galilee so insignificant that there is no mention of it in historical records outside of the New Testament. Their caution is well-founded, for Herod’s son, King Archelaus, rules for only two years before the Roman emperor, Augustus, removes and banishes him for brutality. If Herod could kill a generation of Judean children with impunity, what must Archelaus have done to incur the wrath of the emperor? Or perhaps it was a pragmatic decision on the emperor’s part, knowing that even the poorest, weakest, and most oppressed will eventually rise up.

Advent is a season when Christians celebrate the coming of the Christ-child, the earthly beginning to Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the short, intense journey that brings that child, now a man, to an abrupt end on the cross. But then there is Easter and resurrection; the unexpected turn of a tragedy become comedy, the ultimate trick on the Trickster, and a silent nod off-stage to where Job stands alone in the wings, with an amused shake of his head and a smile. There are innumerable crucifixions without a resurrection, but in this story, there is no resurrection without a crucifixion.

When lies become the norm we cherish the truth even more, and for us in this century, truth is found in facts. We want the gospels to be history, a medium we think we understand as a story that corresponds to the facts. But behind the facts lie assumptions, and assumptions are most often invisible to those who hold them and inaccessible to those who don’t. What is not mentioned in the gospels about Jesus may not have been known by the gospel writers, or was known, but thought so obvious that their concise narratives did not include it, or was known, but considered insignificant to the core of the story. Their assumptions are not our assumptions; the stories that result are strange to us and sometimes even inexplicable.

Albert Schweitzer devoted years to a search for the historical Jesus and finally concluded that “Each successive epoch found its own thoughts in Jesus,” because one typically “created him in accordance with one’s own character.” “There is,” Schweitzer said, “no historical task which so reveals someone’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus.”

Thus, there are multiple versions of Jesus in all ages, as Jaroslav Pelikan so lucidly illustrates in his Jesus Through the Centuries, a cultural history. “For each age,” he comments, “the life and teachings of Jesus represented an answer (or, more often, the answer) to the most fundamental questions of human existence and of human destiny, and it was to the figure of Jesus as set forth in the Gospels that those questions were addressed.” And we could add that people of faith, as well as those who profess no faith, nevertheless carry refracted images of Jesus in their minds that are often at odds with each other. We see Jesus as through a kaleidoscope rather than through a microscope. The gospels give us a collage, not a portrait.

The fragmentary glimpses we get of Jesus are not the result of inattention on the part of the eyewitnesses nor are they lapses in the discipline of the story. Rather, they are the best that people could do to reveal a figure so mysteriously complex and yet so transparently good, that no one close to him could ever say they knew him through and through.

Jesus was not an open book to those who knew him. The disciples were often confused and distraught by his words, drawing him aside to ask for the meaning of a parable or to clarify for them his differences with the religious authorities. Jesus rejoices that God has hidden His truths from the sophisticated and has opened them to those who learn best from actions and images.

We simplify the story of the nativity down to what we can carry without dropping all the other things that fill up our lives. In a creche, the animals form the background, their benign expressions of placid acceptance mirroring our own. Joseph stands to one side, proud but peripheral. The wise men, kneeling or standing, present their gifts with reverence. Mary and Jesus are front and center, the focal point of everything and the period to the exclamation mark of the star that stands above the stable. There is something so achingly touching about this, a child’s toys arranged just so to mimic the world she imagines. Add to this the innumerable Christmas plays in schools and churches acted out in front of proud but anxious parents, each play another means to build a bridge from an ancient culture to our own.

The question for Christians and other people of faith is how to tell this story, this coming-to-Earth story of divine kenosis, of an emptying out and pouring in of God become human. As the epigram suggests, a bridge implies an abyss, otherwise what is its purpose? In communication with one another, in telling the story yet again, we recognize the abyss to be the fact that we cannot clearly and completely express the truths we comprehend, nor can we be assured that our comprehension is correct. We are the ‘speaking animals’ whose verbal options are almost limitless, but by that very fact, we must often grope for the words to match the images we have in our heads.

From within our comfort zone, the Advent story is theologically safe, hermetically sealed, predictable in its results. It’s a ritual we cannot do without, yet it often bypasses the heart.

We need to recapture the ‘otherness,’ the very alien nature of this story of God become a human, a story that rings through history with tones both dark and bright. There are other gods who have appeared in human form, but none of them as a baby and none who stayed around to be murdered—and then rose again.

The thing that we must never forget, that if understood will disrupt our lives and break our complacency, is that nothing in the events of this story can be taken for granted. Joseph could have laughed off his dreams, Mary could have said no, the baby could have died before the age of five from diseases that take the lives of 15,000 per day of newborns in this world. The family seeking asylum in Egypt could have been turned away at the border, held for questioning, or simply murdered on the way.

People made choices without much to go on, save what they held in faith. As strange as those times and that culture may be to us, the common factor we may share if we wish is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that from the foundation of the earth this has been a work of love.

Photo: Vincent Fleming, Unsplash.com

Seeing Things

ChildEyes:ilya-yakover-267697

In this Advent season we await the coming of the Christ-child. Our sources for this are Matthew and Luke. Mark begins his gospel breathlessly with Jesus as a man, coming up out of the waters of baptism, the skies splitting open above him. John’s gospel begins even farther back, among star-trails of light in the cosmos, the Word materializing out of the blackness of the space between the stars, to arrive uncloaked as the very being and presence of God across the universe. It’s Matthew who gives us the credentials first, the genealogy of the Saviour, beginning with Abraham and running neatly through three sets of fourteen generations each until we arrive at “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

And it’s Matthew who calls up astrologers from Babylon who, in their glad and awe-struck homage, ply the family with precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then, after being warned of Herod’s baleful intentions in a dream, take another road back home. No sooner had they gone and the family settled down for fitful sleep, when Joseph yields to a dream (a language he was learning still) to take his wife and newborn child and slip through Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. So, with the gold he buys his neighbor’s horse in whispered haste at three a.m., shuts up the house, and off they go, under the stars, across the rock-strewn miles of desert to seek asylum in Egypt.

With Luke we get the bells and whistles—no wise men this time—but more dreams and angels and shepherds and cousins and songs of humility and unalloyed triumph; an older woman with child who thought herself barren, and a mere girl-child, trembling before the sudden, glittering form of a being who stoops to enter her room, and toward whom she bows her head and shields her eyes because, against the evidence, she is certain she is seeing things.

We look at our own infants and imagine who they might become, what they might do, even (God forbid) the harm that might come to them and the resolve we feel to protect them from anything like that. We wonder how the world will change in the time that passes as they grow into adulthood.

In time, we realize that they are not clones of ourselves, but persons in their own right, with personalities and temperaments that may reflect our influence, yet with their own perspectives and motivations. They are not us; they have their own path to travel.

The being whom Luke names as Gabriel greets Mary in a way that is deeply troubling to her. “Greetings, most favored one! The Lord is with you.” The angel hastens to add, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you; you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus.”

The singular event that transforms human history has begun. It begins, as Luke tells us, with a girl, one among thousands, who is filled with awe and confusion at being singled out, placed at the head of the line, in the spotlight, up on the stage.

Every woman and girl could wonder in quiet moments if she might be the one to bear the Messiah. More than one watched with secret joy at the sweetness of her child, only to have her hopes dashed when he turned out far less messianic than even the most generous grandparent could vouch for.

Luke’s Gabriel is hitting all the keys with full chords now. “He will be great,” the being sings out, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

There is silence. The being looks at Mary expectantly. “How can this be,” she says deadpan, “since I am a virgin?” She may have only been 14 or 15, but she knows how babies are made. The being sighs; this is going to be tougher than he thought.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” he says, and glances sidelong at her. “And the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” A simply deductive syllogism, he thinks. Two premises followed by a conclusion—a conclusion which must be true if the premises are true. And, of course, they are. There is silence. Mary’s head is down, but the being can see that her gaze is fixed and unmoving. She does not blink. He looks more closely; yes, she is still breathing.

He tries again: “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” He pauses. “For nothing is impossible with God,” he finishes up with a flourish. Mary’s shoulders shudder and she lifts her head. Her cheeks are wet with tears, but now she is smiling as she presses her palms into her eyes. She looks up, this girl who has been lifted and spun, whose heart is ablaze with ancient titles, prophetic proclamations, words spoken that were always like objects of wonder heard but not touched, words so overwhelming that they overshadowed the sky and made tense the present.

“Here am I,” she says in a whisper, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And Luke recounts laconically, “Then the angel departed from her.”

Let us not diminish the utter awesomeness of this scene. The word ‘awesome’ has been debased in our time, liberally applied as easily to ice cream as to lending someone a stapler. I want to reserve it for the numinous, that which raises the hair on the back of your neck, that which is awe-full. “The Lord is in this place,” breathes Jacob, looking around in the velvet desert darkness as his eyes adjust to the explosion of light as ten thousand angels ascend and descend on a stairway to heaven. That’s awesome.

No matter how many times we may read of angels appearing to people in the scriptures, we mustn’t forget that it was at least as strange to them as it would be to us. The difference between them and their time and us is that we’ve built in defenses against this kind of thing, so that the numinous cannot be part of any algorithms we might use to calculate what we agree is reality.

She could have said no, Mary could. That is just one of a thousand decision-points that could have diverted or ended the stream of this story. Without that yes, that heart-stopping yes, none of our own yeses would have been possible.

The threshold at which we can linger and then stumble through into Mary’s room after the being is gone, is in the thought of the perilous journey ahead for this promised child. In a matter of moments, Mary has gone from a girl with a predictable life ahead of her to the promised portal through which the Son of God enters the world undetected. This is a joy so deep it can only be expressed with tears. There is a holy terror that rockets her up above the world, giddy at that height and breathless as she yields to the heat that courses through her body.

It is a glorious madness that she has opened herself to. If we are brave enough, we will not turn our eyes away as the arrow arcs into the sky to pierce her heart with the certainty that darkness impenetrable also lies ahead. Joy and terror; this is how her ‘Yes!’ thrills through her body.

***

In his tripartite poem, Seeing Things, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney tells of crossing open water as a child from County Galway by boat to the island of Inishbofin in the Atlantic.

All the time

As we went sailing evenly across

The deep, still, seeable-down-into water,

It was as if I looked from another boat

Sailing through air, far up, and could see

How riskily we fared into the morning,

And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads.

From our distance, looking back, we are both the girl-child that says yes to the being and we are the guardians of the child still to come. Our hearts are full for that child in his early peril. In the Advent season we await his coming into a world both cruelly cold and wondrously beautiful.

Photo: Ilya Yakover, Unsplash.com