Our family has an Advent tradition of laying straw in a wooden manger, every time we do something kind – and removing straw, every time we do something unkind: acts of love and kindness transform the hard wooden food-trough into a cradle where the newborn Baby can rest. And how strange, that we are preparing for God not as we would prepare for a clash of thunder and the shattering of the heavens, but as we would for a newborn child.
The idea of God coming to humanity not only in full humanity, but in helpless, feeble, poor humanity, is such a radical reversal of expectations. I am reminded of T. S. Eliot’s lines from “Gerontion”:
…The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness.
The Word, come among us, can not speak to us in human words. And later, when the Word speaks, how well do we listen? How well did Jesus’ disciples listen? They fell asleep when asked to be vigilant, and so have we all, on down through the centuries, sinking into the deep somnolence of the self-content, or into the acedia of despair.
Christ the Child comes as a wordless infant, in beauty and peace. How easily we sentimentalize this moment, the radiance in the stable – forgetting the smells and the fear, the uncertainty, the squalor. Perhaps the animals did in fact all kneel before him – or gain the gift of speech, for that night alone. Perhaps all the demons fled in terror. But that doesn’t mean the family sheltering there wasn’t poor and exhausted, wanderers, the victims of voracious Empire.
But this child, swaddled in darkness, unable even to speak, is also fearsome:
In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger…
Is Christ coming as a radiant child to bring peace amidst the music of the angels, or as a tiger with teeth to rend those who rent him? Not those who rent his human body on the cross – but what of those who did to him as we did to the least of these?
The readings from Advent remind us that the poor and oppressed long not only for God’s mercy, but for God’s justice. It is to those poor and exhausted, as bereft as the wandering family refuged in the stable, that the words of today’s Advent reading should bring joy:
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
but he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.
On that day, the root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the nations,
the Gentiles shall seek out,
for his dwelling shall be glorious.
Christ the Tiger comes, not the Sign that the superstitious seek, not as a vision to provoke wonder and gossip – but “to strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth?” He comes as a great leveler. “Mountains and hills laid low, the crooked straight, the rough places paved.” The image of the holy mountain of the Lord is one in which even the natural cycle of eater and eaten is disrupted, all the divisions among every living thing erased. Nature as we know it, red in tooth and claw, is no more. God has become a wordless child. The wordless child is God.
This is a peace greater than what any political movement can ever hope to achieve, for the earth that is “filled with the knowledge of the Lord” will be filled with love of all Creation.
But it is also terrifying: with the very breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Are we oppressed, or oppressor? Should we long for justice, or should we fear it? Do we lay the straw in the manger, or do we tear it out, to keep for our own?
(It’s just straw, after all – but how easily we forget this)
image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hicks_peaceable-kingom.jpg