By Lisa Powell
An Advent reflection can go a number of ways: the awaited apocalyptic second coming of Christ and his anticipated return with the blow of trumpets and resurrections all around; or Jesus’ parables charging us to be prepared and John the Baptist’s call for repentance. But there is also the waiting for a Messiah to come to a small and dominated people, oppressed by the Roman Empire. One points to the second advent, or second coming, and the other recalls the first advent and the arrival of God to the world in human flesh.
Advent is the season of waiting, anticipating these arrivals. It is perhaps most often associated with hope, a hope bound up with the promised one to come who will spread peace, embody love, and in overcoming the darkness, increase joy. Hope itself suggests an element of discontent with the current state of things, as we hope for this anticipated change and a different way in the world. Hope by its nature isn’t fully realized. Advent and the day we anticipate as we recollect that holy night is a humble and quiet waiting for a miraculous, but fragile beginning. It is not a victorious hope in these days; come back for that at Easter. This is a quiet hope, the flicker of a flame, and not the blinding flash of a resurrected Christ.
At Mass a few weeks ago the service concluded with the celebratory Gospel song by Andre Crouch “Soon and Very Soon,” which declares that we are “going to see the King”. My 3-year old daughter was very excited about this prospect, as preschool culture is saturated in princesses and royalty. In her mind she surely had regal images of castles and crowns. “We are going to see the KING?!! Who IS the King, mama?!” We explained to her, of course, that the king is Jesus, and now when prompted with: “Who is our king?” she will say: “Baby Jesus!” Even the hope realized on the anticipated day of Christmas is still so tenuous, so tiny, and so at risk. The picture isn’t of the gilded and glorious entry my daughter might imagine. Yes, from the stump of Jesse, Jesus came, but not to reestablish the throne of David and renew a monarchy, but as the descendant of the artistic misfit, deemed unfit for the crown by the prophet Samuel. The anticipated coming might involve angels and stars, but it’s also the bloody agony of a first birth on a dirty straw floor, of a wailing newborn in a barn. God comes as the most vulnerable of humanity, born into an insecure situation, to a despised people and poor parents, who quickly become refugees.
The church begins its calendar year with this period of waiting in the darkness for the light to come, and what it anticipates is miraculous, incredible and astonishingly beautiful, but is simultaneously something small and vulnerable and ordinary. It declares, however absurdly, that this is how God arrives in our world: in a fragile little life, utterly dependent on the care and love of others, vulnerable to illness and disease. The conditions of human life are risky enough for a baby born into poverty in the first century, but this advent also includes Herod seeking to extinguish his life and light before Jesus even learned how to talk or take his first steps. I thank the writers of Matthew and Luke for this. All Gospels declare the scandal of a crucified Lord, but only these two smack you in the face with his humble beginnings: how sketchy it all was (if angelically announced); see a God who becomes embryo, infant, child.
Advent is the perfect time for the prayer “maranatha”: “O, Lord, come!” The world in the Northern Hemisphere grows darker by the day as we approach the solstice and the deep freeze of winter. It also feels cold and dark with fear, uncertainty, and tragedy abounding here and in Aleppo and Cairo, and in too many corners of our world. We are ready for the ultimate victory, for light to vanquish the darkness, but that hope is yet to be realized.
Emmanuel, God with us. And God is with us still in the small, the simple, the poor, and the refugee. This is how God chose to come the first time. It is how God comes to us still. Not in power and force. Not with wealth and common strength. Not among the elite, the prestigious, or the sophisticated. God doesn’t come with swords drawn or guns blazing but in a weak, vulnerable baby born to nobodies. And this is still how God comes and breaks through the dark and the cold; this is still how God spreads salvation. God comes through our feeble and fragile humanity, through earnest human efforts to make peace, create change, establish justice and expand love and light in the name of this newborn king. We wait with our lamps lit, trying to cast light into the shadows. Maranatha.
(Lisa Powell is associate professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)