Shiny Things: Advent, week one

In which I bring back to the nest some of the shiny things I have collected throughout the week…

(In October, I traveled to Nashville for a weirdly fantastic gathering of folks called Hutchmoot. I have tinkered around with some words of reflection on that experience, but they have yet to find any resolution. Perhaps someday soon. Though the entire time was graced in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, one of my primary purposes for going was to hear Leif Enger, whose writing, starting with his magically earthy, transcendent novel Peace Like a River, has been a gift to me for many years. He did not disappoint, even in my few moments of casual conversation with him and his lovely wife, Robin. As he shared his affection for stories with us [“stories are the only theology that makes sense to me”], he offered this exhortation as a way of not only writing, but living, better stories: Look for the shiny things in life – even in the ordinary -and pick them up and collect them in the nest. And so this is but one way I aim to do just that.)

British Bible translator, scholar, and clergyman J.B. Phillips on the astonishing humility and humanity of the Incarnation that has altered all of history (1963)…

Amid the sparkle and the color and music of the day’s celebration we do well to remember that God’s insertion of himself into human history was achieved with an almost frightening quietness and humility. … In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman looking desperately for a place where should could give first to her first baby. I do not think for a moment that Mary complained, but it is a bitter commentary upon the world that no one would give up a bed for the pregnant woman — and that the Son of God must be born in a stable.

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This almost beggarly beginning has been romanticized by artists and poets throughout the centuries. Yet I believe that at least once a year we should look steadily at the historic fact, and not at any pretty picture. At the time of this astonishing event only a handful of people knew what had happened. And as far as we know, no one spoke openly about it for thirty years. Even when the baby was grown to be a man, only a few recognized him for who he really was. Two or three years of teaching and preaching and healing people, and his work was finished. He was betrayed and judicially murdered, deserted at the end by all his friends. By normal human standards, this is a tragic little tale of failure, the rather squalid story of a promising young man from a humble home, put to death by the envy and malice of the professional men of religion. All this happened in an obscure, occupied province of the vast Roman Empire.

It is fifteen hundred years ago that this apparently invincible Empire utterly collapsed, and all that is left of it is ruins. Yet the little baby, born in such pitiful humility and cut down as a young man in his prime, commands the allegiance of millions of people all over the world. Although they have never seen him, he has become the friend and companion to innumerable people. This undeniable fact is, by any measurement, the most astounding phenomenon in human history.

Madeleine L’Engle with a pristinely poetic imagination of how creation itself experienced that humble moment of God becoming man…

Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for joy?

Henri Nouwen on waiting, presence, trust, and hope rooted in and fueled by community…

Many of our destructive acts come from the fear that something harmful will be done to us. And if we take a broader perspective — that not only individuals but whole communities and nations might be afraid of being harmed — we can understand how hard it is to wait and how tempting it is to act. Here are the roots of a “first strike” approach to others.

It impresses me, therefore, that all the figures who appear on the first pages of Luke’s Gospel are waiting. … The whole opening scene of the good news is filled with waiting people.

…waiting is active. Most of us think of waiting as something very passive, a hopeless state determined by events totally out of our hands.

But there is none of this passivity in scripture. Those who are waiting are waiting very actively. They know that what they are waiting for is growing from the ground on which they are standing. That’s the secret. … Active waiting means to be present fully to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it. A waiting person is someone who is present to the moment, who believes that this moment is the moment.

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To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is the trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.

The whole meaning of Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for that which we have already seen. Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us. In this way we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness. That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love even when we see hatred all around us. That is why we can claim that God is a God of life even when we see death and destruction and agony all around us. We say it together. We affirm it in one another. Waiting together, nurturing what has already begun, expecting its fulfillment — that is the meaning of marriage, friendship, community, and the Christian life.

Walt Wangerin Jr., reflecting on Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer for a child, seemingly unanswered for two lifetimes, finding its fulfillment at just the right moment and for the sake of all time and all humanity…

…God does not forget our prayers.

The particular and seeming-private prayer becomes, in God’s omnipotent answer, a universal benefaction. Universal: something for all flesh, something that binds all time together.

And you, my friend–you thought your older prayers had gone unanswered (because we live always in the particular present, forgetting the past, unknowing the future).

And you thought your personal praying had nothing to do with anyone besides yourself and a handful of intimate folk (because your own vision is confined to a particular space, place, community).

But your prayer is never yours alone. It is also God’s, you know.

German Jesuit priest and resistance philosopher Alfred Delp, from his prison cell just days before he was hanged by the Nazis in 1945…

But we have stood on this earth in false pathos, in false security; in our spiritual insanity…we believed that with our own forces we could avert the dangers and banish night, switch off and halt the internal quaking of the universe. We believed we could harness everything and fit it into a final order that would stand.

Here is the message of Advent: faced with him who is Last, the world will begin to shake.

If we want to transform life again, if Advent is truly to come again — the Advent of home and of hearts, the Advent of the people and the nations, a coming of the Lord in all this — then the great Advent question for us is whether we come out of these convulsions with this determination: yes, arise! It is time to awaken from sleep.

The world today needs people who have been shaken by ultimate calamities and emerged from them with the knowledge and awareness that those who look to the Lord will still be preserved by him, even if they are hounded from the earth.

Space is filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But just beyond the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on us the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come.

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