This year we’re welcoming advent with a series called Keeping Watch. As we read in Common Prayer, “God getting born in a barn reminds us that God shows up in the most forsaken corners of the earth.” The same holds true today. Many of the stories Nations tells take place in overlooked, unglamorous places. Yet that’s where God has chosen to reveal his kingdom. Every Friday leading up to Christmas, we’ll be posting a reflection about waiting, paying attention, and noticing glimpses of this new order. Join us in preparing to celebrate the incarnation—God with us!
On the phone the other day, my friend tells me about a book she is reading. I am walking in my neighborhood, phone pressed to my ear and a blister digging into my heel thanks to a mile in too-small shoes. But I keep walking, caught up in our conversation. The book, To Dance with God by Gertrud Nelson, explores Christian rituals—the practices and ceremonies we use to connect with God. “The author compares us to children standing at the edge of the ocean,” my friend says over the phone. “The ocean is too big for them to comprehend, so they dig holes in the sand and allow the water to fill the holes. These little sand pools are like rituals—they give us a way to experience God.”
I like the ocean as a metaphor for God: vast and mysterious and never fully comprehensible. We understand such a small portion of who God is. In the same way, we see only a sliver of what the ocean contains when we stand at its edge. We understand the sea by the froth of whitewash, wet sand, tidepools. We experience water swirling in the shallows and waves breaking overhead as we duck into the swell.
But imagine everything else: the prehistoric creatures that float in the blackness deep below; whole mountain ranges underwater with volcanoes and valleys; wonders we’ll never see. More than 70 percent of our planet is covered by this water. When its immenseness becomes too much to take in, we dig holes in the sand in order to—as Nelson writes—“catch something of the transcendent.” A container for the ocean keeps awe from overwhelming us.
Before the Christian church created rituals to know God, God made his own pool in the sand. He came to us in a human body, in the form of a baby—the tiniest and most vulnerable container for mystery I can imagine. In Jesus, God was willingly bound by time, flesh, and human emotions. The incarnation is God’s vastness held in a physical form—one we can see, touch, and interact with.
The incarnation must have appeared small and unglamorous to human eyes. A barn, a girl in labor, a few shepherds. A rural town most people had given up on. Even now God’s kingdom, already initiated on earth, often materializes in fits and starts. We catch glimpses of restoration here or there, if we’re paying attention.
Advent is the strange season of waiting for hope that’s already arrived. After a year marked by fear and division and hatred—a year of hurricanes and corruption and shootings—the arrival of Jesus feels all the more desperately awaited. Advent is a time of anticipation but also of ache, and maybe that is right. God understands what it is like to be human and how it feels to be lost in the dark. Nothing is foreign to him; nothing is irrelevant. He is with us and for us in every way. Immanuel.
A liturgy for the first Sunday in advent begins like this:
Reader: Today we remember the prophets of old, who demanded to be heard, who dared to speak of a child to come, unexpected liberator of the people, vulnerable incarnation of the Holiest of Holies, a new name for God.
People: Today we give thanks for the prophets among us, who bring to us surprising new visions of hope, who challenge us to think outside the box, who show us a future we never anticipated.*
It’s hard to notice God at work in the dark. The liturgy reminds us that the prophets “demanded to be heard.” We’re easily tugged toward hopelessness by screaming headlines, but the kingdom won’t yell for our attention. As the prophets knew, we have to think outside the box to imagine a more beautiful future. We have to settle in, quiet down, and watch for pinpricks of light.
And these pinpricks are inevitable. Inevitable like the sky waits to tuck in the sun, like a woman in labor waits to meet her child. We have to pay attention to and fight for the kingdom, which came and is coming and will come.
*Click here for the full liturgy.