Advent without Guarantees

Advent without Guarantees November 23, 2015

Advent without Guarantees

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
(From W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being”)

These words from W.H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, written in the dark days of World War II, speak to us as we begin the Advent Season. We have been rocked by terrorist acts in Paris and Beirut, heightened security at USA airports over the Thanksgiving holidays, and concerns about when the next attack will come, and the realists among us believe that it will. Amid the temptation to let our fears destroy our vision, our faith tells us that a little child has been born, God with us incarnate. This child holds the future even though the signs of the times foretell more chaos as humankind remains wedded to the ways of war and ecological destruction.

We dream of a miracle, but there are no guarantees that one will come. Like the children of Israel, we are prone to wait passively for a divine rescue operation, or postulate the day and the hour of the Messiah, yet the Rescuer has gone AWOL and one after another biblical prognostications prove false. And, so we wait. “We who must die demand a miracle.” But, will one come?

Advent is the season of expectation and hope, but more than that the season of waiting; restless and often impatient waiting, but waiting nevertheless. We would like the miracle now. We yearn for the peaceable kingdom and the demise of the forces of evil, and the end of our own ambiguity, but in Advent we wait. “Nothing can save us that is possible,” Auden writes and he is right. We wait for an impossible possibility, an ever-receding but constantly luring horizon, but without such impossibilities life loses zest and the energies of change deplete.

Twenty one centuries ago, Jewish seers awaited the Messiah, who would turn everything upside down, throw out the oppressors, and renew David’s line. In their time, there was no revolution, no destruction of the Empire and liberation of David’s children, but there was the birth of a Child, powerless, innocent, and soon to be pursued by his enemies. Yet, among those whose senses were opened, this Child is called Messiah, God with us, not ruling with sword but by changing our history through suffering love. Turning everything upside down with a baby’s cry, a healing touch, and welcome to the unloved and unwanted and reversing the poles of human life with a Cross and an Empty Tomb.

The baby in the manger has come, God is with us, life defeats death, and like those who flocked to the stable we are still waiting, and hoping for that miracle that will bring laughter to the streets, homes to refugees, and comfort to the wounded and dying. Some look elsewhere – trusting the God of violence rather than the baby in the manger – gleefully hoping that most of their peers will be “left behind, while they rise beyond the clouds of uncertainty and conflict. Rising oceans, dying species, and climate changes don’t bother them, for God will take care of things. God’s beloved world is of little consequence as they dream of heavenly bliss. But, their otherworldly rapture is not the answer and will fail them. The only rapture we can trust is the rapture born of cherishing the birth of a child, rejoicing in a sunset, and treasuring a loving touch, finding in all these simple acts the incarnate God.

Advent is a hard season. We yearn for Christmas – now! We want change – yesterday! Still, it is in the cherishing of this earth, the constant commitment to bring beauty to the world, the willingness to sacrifice privilege and wealth and to live simply that others simply live, and the welcome of the stranger, that we discover the miracle we have sought. As a great leader once said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” In Advent, we may discover that we are the miracle we have been waiting for.

In 1979, my wife and I were living in Tucson, Arizona, when I read of a Christian commune, up the street from our apartment. The leaders had discerned the signs of the times and knew Jesus would be coming soon. They quit their jobs and sold their possessions, and headed up to the mountains to be closer to the heavens when Christ descended. Their expected deliverance never came, despite their preparations. As they charted the signs of the times and hoped for a divine rescue operation, we also made preparations. A child was going to be born, our first child, and we prepared, changing our diets, fitting out a nursery, and visiting the doctor. And, that child turned our world upside down, and still does 35 years later as we daily provide nurture for our lively grandchildren!

Advent provides no absolute guarantees, nor does it promise supernatural deliverance from life’s ambiguities and conflicts. It does promise something perhaps more meaningful and enduring. Those who prepare for an amazing possibility while they are waiting, those who turn from death to life and take a chance on God, will be rewarded. They will experience holiness amid passing time and possibility when the way seems blocked. They will find the miracle they seek as each day gives birth to a holy adventure and the wonder of new life emerging, and they will rejoice when God’s child is born in their midst.

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