Advent is a borderland season, a Gateway between the warm, diffuse light of autumn harvests and the cold, intense lights that focus our eyes in winter’s dark. In Advent, shrinking days spread night before us like a mise-en-scene. And a few startling people, who embody different borderlands, step out and speak, each an intense light. Bright as they are, and memorable, none is easy to understand.
The world’s geo-political borderlands are spreading darkness before us as Advent enters in. Upon the stage of these strange, unfamiliar, and until now insignificant places, startling people have stepped forth, howling hate. Chilling and eerie, the hate is clear. The reason in it, less so. The politics at work here is violent, arbitrary, and despairing, even as it assumes a language of righteousness and retribution, in the name of a God loved by billions, in a faith whose name, Islam, and prayer practice, Salaam, both mean Peace.
Lesbos. Lampedusa. Raqqa. Gaza. Beirut. Turkey. Each is a Gateway between the World We Know and the Other World. And each is an Advent scene, a place and time in which, in the agony of protracted labor, something new and unknown is being born into the world.
The characters on the Advent stage are John and Mary. Advent begins with an urgent warning, to prepare for the new and unknown, and to prepare by becoming fruitful. And then we are shown by these two, how to prepare. Wildman John enters in, followed by Wildwoman Mary. And weaving around them, there is an Angel.
Wildman John lives in the borderlands of Israel, beyond the culture, customs, and conventions of Jerusalem. And he lives beyond the borders of corruption. He denounces all the known leaders of the world in his time, those whose names and cities are easily recognized. Throngs are drawn to his Voice of Truth. But he does not urge them to violence. Instead, he urges acts of kindness and generosity, and a universal reverence for each other, a human family connection extending across all borders and divisions. He uses water as the sign of this bond.
Wildwoman Mary lives in a borderland too, stepping beyond her culture, its customs and conventions for women, sexuality, marriage, and motherhood. She was chosen, according to Luke, for the grace that was in her before she conceived. Luke writes: the angel bowed down and honored her grace. She asked searching questions of the angel before consenting to bear a child, whom she says will magnify God. She uses her child as the sign of her bond to the hungry and the lowly.
The Angel, a borderland creature, lives in the shadows between God and humans, swooping around the edges of history. Death is everywhere in history. But everywhere death is, the Angel assures people of the Presence and Purpose of God.
In our borderlands, this Advent, let us be on the lookout for intense, small lights and for wildly different people, whose voices shout out our common humanity, our ability to transcend corruption with kindness, and to free ourselves from oppression by hope and the gracious presence of angels.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down in so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
–Richard Wilbur, in Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
1. John the Baptist, by Fra Angelico, Altarpiece, 1437, Perugia,Italy. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. Annunication, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
3. Annunciation, by Cosme Tura, 1474. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.