It’s the fourth Sunday in Advent today and even the crustiest and most Christmas-resistant among us are beginning to thaw. The Mead family is preparing its Christmas Day get-together and though sadly some beloved faces are no longer with us at the holiday table, new arrivals by birth and by marriage keep increasing our tribe. I was in Allen, Texas a week ago for a family wedding and a visit to my eldest niece and her young and growing family; my iPad still has the grease marks from four year old fingers playing Angry Birds.
When I was a kid and my father was the parish priest at the Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (a parish that is still flourishing today, I am happy to report), I used to wonder why we needed a whole month to get ready for Christmas—and why in the Church Advent, like Lent, was supposed to be a time of penitence and deprivation. (I also used to wonder how Jesus could have been crucified under a pilot named Pontius 2000 years ago when as everybody in North Carolina knows, the first plane didn’t fly until the Wright brothers got to Kitty Hawk.)
The pilot/Pilate business I finally figured out, but the peculiarity that we are supposed to prepare for Christmas by fasting is still intriguing. This year my thoughts on that subject have led me to think more deeply about the two faces of Christmas. On the one hand, Christians believe that this was the central event in world history, the moment when God’s most deeply laid plan bore fruit, when the history of Israel and the whole complex process of divine revelation came to a head. And as we read the Bible, it was the most heavily foreshadowed of all events: from Genesis through the histories, the psalms and the prophets, Christians see predictions and foreshadowings of Jesus Christ. The Gospels, Acts, the Epistles and even the Book of Revelations are filled with references to and quotations from these predictions in the Hebrew Scriptures—even if often to the Greek translation of those scriptures that was current in those times.
Yet nothing is more clear as we read those books than that Jesus was a surprise to his contemporaries. Many expected him to come as a national liberator who would do in his day what the Maccabees had done in theirs: drive the foreign invaders out and restore the pure worship of God to the Temple in Jerusalem. Others expected him to descend from on high, terrible and glorious from the beginning. Nobody really expected him to be born in obscure circumstances, refuse all involvement with political parties or national liberation, and to stand apart from the religious leadership of the era.
Jesus caught the world by surprise. Jews everywhere were looking for deliverance at the time of his birth; Judaism as a faith was in ferment and Israel as a nation was stirring restlessly under Rome. Messianic prophecies and messianic figures were everywhere. Both before and after Jesus, claimants to the title of Messiah appeared.
Beyond the land of Israel, what we think of today as Europe and the Middle East were also in ferment. The unification of the Mediterranean basin under Roman leadership, and the consolidation of Roman authority under the rule Julius Caesar’s heirs were still recent events. Trade, immigration and cultural exchange were creating an early form of globalization in the region: ideas, religions and products from all over spread from city to city across the Roman Empire and its neighbors.
Periods of globalization and cultural mingling are often periods of apocalyptic thinking; the Jews weren’t the only people expecting big changes in the world at that time. Even in the court of Augustus, the staid and sleek Vergil wrote about a heroic, divine birth that would change the world. His famous fourth eclogue is at one level a brilliantly executed piece of literary fawning at the feet of the imperial family, but it bespeaks much wider hopes for a new age in the world, so much so that many commentators have read it as a kind of pagan prophecy of the coming of Christ.
Yet with all this anticipation of a savior of some kind, few even understood who Jesus claimed to be, fewer still believed him, and none of his friends and followers really understood what he had come to do. The birth and mission of Christ were both thoroughly predicted and completely surprising. It was exactly what God had been saying for centuries that he would do—and yet nobody expected anything like what actually came.
This is one of the characteristic signs of God’s work in the world. Just as the ideas of a great genius can seem perfectly obvious once they’ve been stated, but were completely obscure before the genius spoke, so God’s acts in history often look inevitable and natural in hindsight, but nobody can predict them in advance.
God is surprising, very much like the God character portrayed by Alanis Morissette in the film “Dogma”. He is all peace, love and Woodstock at one moment, and fire in the sky the next. Some of this we can see in the enormous variety of his creation; as William Blake reminds us, he made the Tiger as well as the Lamb.
We never know what he’ll do next; he catches us flatfooted time after time. We look for a conquering hero, we get a baby in a manger. We look for a religious authority, we get a man who wanders from town to town and consorts with prostitutes. We look for the hero who will drive foreigners out of the country, and we get a corpse on a cross.
As a teacher, Jesus was also surprising. He almost never did what people expected. When asked about how to punish an adulteress, he told the angry crowd to forget about stoning her if they weren’t perfect themselves. But when an idealistic young man asked him what he had to do to please God, Jesus told him it wasn’t enough to obey the commandments: he had to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor. That was a pattern of his—he would tell the sinful they were forgiven and tell the pious that they weren’t doing nearly enough. He would build up a huge following by feeding people in the wilderness—and then disappear. He pulled the rug out from under his disciples every time they thought they had figured him out. He told his disciples to work, for the night was coming, then rebuked Martha for working while Mary sat at his feet. He violated all the usual expectations of his day: he didn’t marry, he didn’t show special partiality to his own family, he made no money, wrote no books, built no house, had no child. He wasn’t a desert prophet like John the Baptist but he didn’t settle down into the comfortable urban life of a religious scholar. He taught strict obedience to the laws of Moses, but reserved the right to interpret that law as no one before him had done. He spoke about infinite mercy and compassion—and terrified his followers with descriptions of God’s vengeance. He forgave sinners in the street, but said that the road to Heaven was hard to find.
Whenever the Bible refers to the Second Coming, the return of Jesus at the end of history, it speaks in mysteries and riddles—and flat out tells us that we can’t solve the puzzle. He will come “like a thief in the night.” People won’t be expecting him; they will run from place to place looking. There will be stories and rumors about his return. There will be lies and false prophets. Everybody will be looking—and nobody will see.
That doesn’t, I fear, just describe people at the end of time. It describes us today. God is constantly coming into our lives, and we are constantly failing to see him. It may be the family down the street having a rough time this year, the difficult woman in your apartment building, the angry, lonely kid who the others don’t want to play with. It may be the disappointment at work, the financial reversal or the end of a relationship. It can be a car accident. God is knocking at the door of our lives every day and all the time, but we are mostly too blind, too busy or too afraid to respond.
This reality that we are surrounded by God but can’t see his presence is, I think, the reason for a season like Advent. The purpose of any fasting and prayer that goes on in Advent isn’t to purify ourselves so we are worthy of the divine visitor when he arrives (that, I fear, is beyond us). It is more to wake us up, get us alert, make us ready to recognize Christ when he comes.
No matter what we do or how we prepare, God will surprise us; some of the presents he leaves under the tree are well wrapped. But we can and should use Advent to ask him to open our hearts and our eyes to his presence in this world; Advent is a time to prepare for the unexpected, to limber up, to prepare ourselves for change. We will find him where and when we don’t expect him, and our smug self assurance is the first thing he’ll blast away.
[Image courtesy Shutterstock.]