Advent is derived from a Latin word meaning “arrival” or “coming.” The season of Advent on the church calendar marks something momentous.
Henry Nouwen, who taught at both Harvard and Yale and authored over forty books, spent the last seven years of his life serving in a community of people with mental disabilities. One Christmas, a member of their community arranged under the altar three small wood-carved figures made in India: a poor woman, a poor man, and a small child between them. The carvings were simple, nearly primitive – no features, just the contours of the faces. The figures were smaller than a human hand. But when a beam of light shone on the figures, large shadows were projected on the wall of the sanctuary, which, according to Nouwen, functioned as “large, hopeful shadows against the walls of our life and world.” Without the light, there was little to be seen, and one could pass by the figures and “continue to walk in darkness.” “But,” observed Nouwen, “everything changes with the light.”
The season of Advent invites us to reflect on and celebrate the coming of the light – the historical incarnation of the Divine in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The writer of First Timothy recited a litany used in early Christian worship that called this “the mystery of godliness,”
“Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up into glory.”
I love what the author Madeleine L’Engle said:
“Don’t try to explain the Incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest star in the furthest galaxy. It is love, God’s limitless love enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus the Christ, fully human and fully divine.”
Any rendering of Christianity that reduces “the mystery of godliness” to a propositional statement, a creed, or doctrinal formula diminishes its truth. Any attempt to explain it will miss the mark and likely stifle the imagination that is needed to enter into the mystery.
I love the story about the little girl who came running out of her room after a particularly loud crack of thunder during a thunderstorm. She jumped into bed with her parents and exclaimed, “Mommy, I’m scared.” Her mother calmly reassured her that everything would be all right: “Remember honey, God is with you.” She retorted, “I know, but I really want someone with skin on her face.”
Advent invites us to stand in wonder and awe before the God who became incarnate in human flesh – a God with “skin on her/his face.”
Advent also encourages anticipation of and work for a world of peace and justice. God’s historical incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth points toward the future when God’s healing and redemptive presence transforms all humanity and creation.
A minister was preparing his sermon in his study at home. His little daughter stormed in and asked, “Daddy, can we play?” He said, “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I’m in the middle of getting my sermon ready for Sunday. We’ll play later. She sighed, “Okay,” and then declared, “When you’re finished, I’m going to give you a big hug.” She turned to leave, but when she got to the door, she spun around, raced back to her father, jumped up on his lap and gave him a bone-breaking hug. He said, “Honey, I thought you were going to give me the hug later when I finished.” She responded, “I am. I just wanted you to know what you have to look forward to.”
In Jesus we are given a preview of God’s dream for the world. This is why we pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus offers us a glimpse of what God’s will for the planet looks like and what we have to look forward to.
While the proper observance of Advent includes both remembrance and anticipation, Advent is not complete without the contemporary appropriation of Christ’s living presence. For without this present experience, the focus on the past and future have little relevance.
Paul wrote to the church in Galatia,
“But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law . . . Because you are his sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out Abba, Father (Gal. 4:4-6).”
God’s Spirit is still vindicating and validating “the mystery of godliness” as the Spirit illumines, reveals, and mediates the living presence of Christ, affirming our identity as God’s children.
Advent invites us to appropriate God’s healing, reconciling, saving presence now. The angel announced to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11). Matthew’s version expresses it this way: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21)
Evangelical and progressive Christians tend to explain Jesus’ work as Savior and our present experience of salvation in different ways. I believe personal salvation is a process of conversion that, like the energizer bunny, goes on and on. As we open our lives to the light and truth of Christ’s living presence, the dark parts of our personality and ego are exposed, freeing Christ’s Spirit to rescue us from the deception and tyranny of our false selves. The Spirit works redemptively in us and through us, healing our inner wounds and liberating us from our false attachments and group idolatries. We then experience some measure of freedom from the pride, greed, egocentricity, anger, bitterness, prejudice, ignorance, and narrowness that held us in bondage.
Advent also encourages us to be awake to encounter Christ in the everydayness of life. I have had experiences where I became keenly aware of and passionately moved by God in the most common of circumstances and ordinary of places: in a casual conversation with a friend, wading in a local creek fishing for smallmouth bass, playing make-believe with my small grandchildren, sitting on a gymnasium bleacher waiting to referee a recreational league basketball game, waiting with a family while their loved one dies. God is present in all of life – we just need eyes to see and ears to hear.
The light that was and will be is now, shimmering against the backdrop of every single experience and encounter. The presence of Christ is for the present. The invitation of Advent is an invitation to open our everyday, common lives and our deepest selves to the healing, transforming Spirit of the living Christ.
(The reflections above were drawn from chapter 2, “Advent’s Invitation: Shimmers of Hope” of my book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season)