The Season of Advent is upon us, a season of expectation and joy as well as a season of ominous judgement and sobriety, a season of waiting for the coming of our God in our Lord Jesus Christ, first in the vulnerable crying of a tiny child, but also as the judge and king of all. Advent is about waiting for something we think we know all about, but still has the ability to surprise and astonish us. There are many Advent traditions to mark of this season, but one of my personal favourites is the Advent Calendar. When I was a child (and I think even at uni) I would peek ahead to see what was coming next never being one to control my anticipation of what the future might hold. What was going to be behind the next window – a star, a candle, a Teletubby, or a character from the Justice League, who would know in today’s world?
Yet that final window is always the same, but even in that sameness it held a wonder quite unlike all of the others. An ancient story that could transform everything else, something so familiar, but something radically unknown, like an incredible promise that could only be partially grasped. Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger. As mundane and profound as that. A baby just like the ones we see everyday, but the one who will grow up “to become for Christians the only accurate window into God.”
I think our lives are a little like those Advent Calendars. You never know quite what is coming next, as one by one the windows are opened to reveal the familiar and the unknown, the planned for and the unpredictable. A move from Australia back to the United Kingdom, a ‘yes’ from a bishop meaning a new time of vocational exploration and training, the man or woman you are going to marry, the sickness that is going to transform your life, the new job that is on offer, the death of someone you love. One by one the windows open, illuminating or darkening our lives, creating my particular story and yours. And yet, that last window remains tightly shut, the deep and powerful mystery of death.
But Christians think otherwise. We don’t – or shouldn’t – dispense with the mystery, we can’t guess at the life of heaven or the nature of what is to come. But in a way, a tiny window has been opened onto heaven by the birth of the Christmas child. This birth means that the darkness of what lies ahead is seen in a different light, as God gives himself to us, opening a window onto the divine, a window that leads us to interpret, to see, everything in a different way. Christmas come early.
This is what Frederick Buechner has to say about God searching for just the right word to say to us, just the right window to shed the right kind of light upon us:
“God tries Noah, but Noah is a drinking man, and he tries Abraham, but Abraham is a little too Mesopotamian with all those wives and whiskers. Tries Moses, but Moses himself is trying too hard; and David too handsome for his own good… Tries John the Baptist with his locusts and honey, who might almost have worked except for something small but crucial like a sense of the ridiculous or a balanced diet. Word after word God tries… and then he finally tries to get into one final Word what he is and what human is and why the suffering of love is precious and how the peace of God is a tiger in the blood. And the Word that God finds is this one, Jesus of Nazareth, all of it coming alive finally in this life, the Word finally made flesh in this flesh…”
We often imagine Christian faith to be about ‘do this!‘ or ‘don’t do that!‘ But the season of Advent reminds us that it is nothing like that at all. It is more like, ‘Pay attention!’ or ‘Wake Up!’ or ‘Look again!’ Look at this new Advent window, the only window that sheds light on everything, the window that asks us to look again at reality and see what really matters.
What is amazing is that all of the characters of Advent – the prophets, John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Mary all say, ‘don’t look at me – look at him. Listen to his words, see his actions, for he alone of all of us shows us what human life really looks like, shows us what the divine life really looks like, shows us what reality actually looks like.’ He is a window into all things. But this window does not confirm us in what we think we already know, rather it casts an alien and searching light upon our world and makes it strange. Looking through the window of Jesus Christ casts a new light on everything so that nothing can ever be the same again.
If the birth of a baby in a stable and the tortured body of a man hanging on a cross are the two most revealing windows into God, where does it leave us? For here is a God who shows his majesty and his power by becoming like us in every way, a God who answers our violence with the vulnerable cries of love. And as Michael Mayne reminds us, ‘it is that proper love, that Christlike love, which – as we begin to prepare for Christmas – should reduce us to a wondering silence, and by which we shall one day be judged.‘ AMEN.