For those who are not quite ready to move beyond the miracle of Emmanuel …
The First Sunday of Advent has arrived. In congregations all across the universal Church, chosen families will light the first candle in a liturgical wreath. In homes all across the globe, countless families will decorate a fir tree and open the first tiny door of the numerical calendar.
On this day, followers of Christ begin looking forward to his sacred birth – to that holy night when a helpless newborn babe was lain in a manger, God in flesh, wrapped in lowly swaddling clothes.
The season that begins today resonates in all the deepest corners of our soul wherein lie our heartfelt desires for hope, for joy, for peace, for goodwill, and for love.
‘Tis the season. Today it begins. Our spiritual longings quicken and engage. Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set they people free.
But long ago, the First Sunday of Advent was not so much about awaiting the newborn babe but rather awaiting the returning victorious Christ. The Epistle reading was Romans 13:11-14, which in today’s language reads:
This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So remove your dark deeds like dirty clothes, and put on the shining armor of right living.Because we belong to the day, we must live decent lives for all to see. Don’t participate in the darkness of wild parties and drunkenness, or in sexual promiscuity and immoral living, or in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.
The gospel reading was Matthew 21:1-11, verses we usually reserve for Palm Sunday:
As Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the town of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. “Go into the village over there,” he said. “As soon as you enter it, you will see a donkey tied there, with its colt beside it. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will immediately let you take them.”
This took place to fulfill the prophecy that said,
“Tell the people of Jerusalem,
‘Look, your King is coming to you.
He is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.’”
The two disciples did as Jesus commanded. They brought the donkey and the colt to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on it.
Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road ahead of him, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Jesus was in the center of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting,
“Praise God for the Son of David!
Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Praise God in highest heaven!”
The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked.
And the crowds replied, “It’s Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
The focus of Advent has shifted measurably over the centuries. As best I can remember, I’ve never heard about the second coming of Christ in conjunction with the First Sunday of Advent. How would that even work? In this holy season of tree and feast, candle and creche, glory and gifts (indeed, let us be sure to remember gifts, amen), how would we make sense of Christ’s triumphal return and his final judgment?
And yet, Christ’s first coming (an event that even non-followers and non-believers are often quite ready to celebrate) is intrinsically and necessarily tied to his second coming (an event that even followers and believers are often quite hesitant to consider).
The gentle newborn babe – accessorized with swaddling cloths and radiant stars – fills our hearts. The triumphant Rider on a White Horse – accessorized with blazing eyes and armies of heaven – unsettles our sensibilities.
And yet they are the same. The gentle newborn babe is the returning and reigning Lord.
We celebrate the First Sunday of Advent most truly and sincerely when we are willing both to sing with carolers, “Come, thou long expected Jesus,” and to declare with John of Patmos, “Come Lord Jesus!”
Anonymous, c. 1538, The pystles and gospels, of every Sonday, and holy daye in the yere (fol. ii recto) [Transcription below.]
The Pystels and Gospels in Englysshe
Here begyn=neth the Pystles & Gospels / of eue=ry Sonday & holy day in the yere.
The Pystell on the fyrst Sonday in Aduent.
The xiii Chapiter to the Romayns.
Brethren we knowe that it is tyme nowe that we awake out of slepe / for nowe is our saluaciō nerer thē we be=leued. The nyght is passed and the daye is come nye / let us therefore cast awaye the dedes of darkens / & let us put on the armour of lyght. Let us walke honestly as it were ī the daye of lyght / nat ī eatyng & drynking / neyther ī chāmbryng & wantōnes / neyther ī stryfe & en=uyeng / but put ye on our lorde Jesus Christ.
The Gospell on the fyrste Sondaye in aduent.
The xxi chapiter of mathewe.
Whē Jesus drewe nye unto Je=rusalē / & came to Betphage unto the mounte Oliuete / thē sēt Jesus two of his disciples / sayeng to thē. Go into the castell that lyeth ouer agaynst you and anone ye shal fynde an Asse boundē / & her Colte with her / lose thē & brynge thē un=to me / & yf any mā say ought unto you / saye ye that your lorde hathe nede of thē: & strayght way he wyll let them go. All this was done to fulfyl that whiche was spokē by the ƥphet / sayeng Tel ye the doughter of Syon beholde they kynge cōmeth unto the meke: & sytting upon an Asse & a Colte / the fole of an Asse used to the yoke. The disciples wente & did as Jes (end of fol. ii recto)
[For those unused to early English orthography, give it a try. It starts to make sense as you work through it.]
So, March 20 was the first day of spring in this, the year 2013.
Ergo, yesterday – March 24 – was the fifth day of spring. As in the season the follows winter.
But there must have been some confusion because last night – the fifth evening of spring – looked like this:
Note, if you please, the white-covered branches. I half expected a faun to the step out from among the trees into the light of the lamp-post, holding an umbrella in one arm and carrying several brown-paper parcels in the other.
Admittedly, it was quite magical for any number of reasons. The still silence. The storybook setting. The anticipation of curling up in a warm bed under a pile of toasty blankets.
Best of all, I did not have to sneak silently back to a distant wardrobe, trusting neither tree nor bird, but rather could joyfully re-light my Christmas tree that is still standing because, well, it’s made of books and so it still is. (I find it quite impossible to contemplate a home where it is not, but of course one must prepare oneself for the possibility.)
Thankfully I do not live in a land where it is always winter and never Christmas. Where there is no sight of spring. Where grace and hope and love are hidden away in small and secret places.
I live in a land where winter – even if it lasts for ever so long – is always filled with the joy of Christmas and always followed by the miracle of Easter. Where grace and hope and love are free for the taking.
That is: the sun always shines, no matter how dark the wintry clouds may be. And just when it is needed most, it pierces through the air and sky and soul to shatter our little world and save our desperate hearts.
The spell, you see, is broken. The patches of green are growing bigger. The patches of snow are growing smaller. The mist has turned from white to gold. And overhead, there is blue sky between the tree tops.
Rest assured: underneath the deep, deep snow, springtime and new life are bursting from the ground.
All is very, very well.
(Select descriptions of both winter and spring borrowed respectfully from Narnia.)
Gently and beautifully, she tips her brow
Down t’wards the babe while at her breast he sleeps.
She moves beyond the joy to wonder how
Love strikes so deeply ’tis pain, and she weeps.
Her eyes drink in the beauty of his hands,
His feet, his face – so small, perfect, her own.
In her heart, she cannot conceive the sands
Of years changing babe to man, birth to grown.
The heavn’s dance as angels shout the birth
Of pure love. The stars and seas cry joy.
And even the God smiles and sings for earth.
All time and space celebrates her small boy.
Eternity is pressed in this one night
As she lies bathed in Emmanuel’s light.
Dance with the angels!
Shout with the stars!
Messiah has come,
and with Him
Long ago and far away, on a deeply dark night and after a weary day of travel, a young woman labored long to deliver her son into the world.
He rushed forth from her womb, leaving behind its warmth and safety to enter a world of both pain and love, joy and sorrow, birth and death – just like other newborn babes.
Someone scooped him up, wiped him clean, bundled him tightly, and lay him at his mother’s breast – just like other newborn babes.
Someone named him, held him, gazed at him lovingly, and brought him home to safety and warmth – just like other newborn babes.
Someone counted his fingers, counted his toes, stroked his delicate skin, fingered his silken hair, marveled at his quivering eyelashes, and traced his perfect face – just like other newborn babes.
Someone basked in the glow of new life, marveled at this bundle of humanity, and rejoiced in his miraculous breathing, wiggling, yawning, crying, sleeping, and eating – just like other newborn babes.
But this was not just another newborn babe.
This was Mary’s child. The carpenter’s boy. The son of God.
This was God himself, come to earth as a helpless babe, rushing forth from Mary’s womb – the Creator of everything, reduced to this wiggling, yawning, crying, sleeping, eating infant.
Jesus certainly was not just another newborn babe.
But because he willingly became a newborn babe, and then willingly went to the cross for all of humanity, we are offered life that only He can give – the kind of life where Jesus now washes us clean, names us, holds us, numbers the hairs on our head, and basks lovingly in the miracle of our new life – just like other born anew babes.
Breathe deeply and rejoice both in the miracle of newborn life and life born anew because there is nothing “just” about either one – for the first is undeservedly miraculous and the second is miraculously undeserved.
Babies are my grounding point. When I need a visible and tangible reminder of God’s majesty, deity, splendor, creativity, love – even very existence – I find it there: living, breathing, crying, wiggling, squirming, sucking, sleeping, breathtaking babies.
Those fingers. Those toes. Those eyelashes, like spun silken strands in miniature.
That hair. That nose. That skin, like softened velvet robes in space.
Who can comprehend the miracle? Who can fathom the process? Who can understand the astonishing surprise of human life appearing in such a thoroughly helpless yet perfect bundle of being?
And most of all: who can grasp the unimaginable truth that Almighty God, Creator of the universe, would willingly choose such a form for His greatest work of all – the rescue of mankind from itself?
Christ, the living babe. The helpless, living, breathing, crying, wiggling, squirming, sucking, sleeping, breathtaking babe.
The incarnated Word.
God in flesh.
Majesty on earth.
It boggles the mind (if one really thinks about it). It astounds the senses (if one really absorbs it). It overwhelms the soul (if one really believes it).
Oh my word, what could be more startling? (There is nothing like it.)
Oh my Word, who could be more salvific? (There is no one like You.)
[Here is quite certainly the most delightful Christmas pageant ever. I’d be mightily surprised if this video of children-as-sheep, children-as-wisemen, children-as-stars, and children-as-holy-family didn’t make you smile broadly and cry joyfully.]
I love my book tree just as much unlit by day as lit by night. It’s gracious like that.
Like all beautiful and bookish things, there’s more to this book tree than just a tapered stack of tomes. There is truth. Loads of it. Mostly about the Church and her people.
Lesson 1: If one book falls, they all fall. (Really – is it too obvious to state?)
Lesson 2: Each book brings something unique to the tree – colors, textures, topics, covers, authors, views, titles. The variety is astonishing.
Lesson 3: The tree is made entirely of books that were either destined for the trash pile or stacked in a junk shop before being rescued, bought for a price, carried home, and given new life.
Lesson 4: Some of the books have divergent views on such things as history, humanity, and society, but they all agree to play together nicely and be part of this particular tree.
Lesson 5: Together, these books make something bigger, better, and more beautiful than they do alone.
Lesson 6: Even the smallest amount of book tree light pierces the surrounding darkness.
Lesson 7: The inner book tree lights radiate the space within, then spill out the cracks, tumble over the pages, and radiate the space without.
Lesson 8: The seemingly ordinary books are quite as necessary as the fancifully decorated books.
Lesson 9: The tree stands tall and true only because it is built on a foundation that is strong and level (and also happens to be made out of an old shed door decorated in crayon by the neighbor girl).
Lesson 10: The tree brings me joy. Great, great joy.
So should the Church. And so can the Church. But often she does not because (sometimes) each of her books determines to write its own story, construct its own foundation, and be its own individual tree.
And yet the Lord loves her (and her books) still. Glory be, that is Good News indeed.
[Just one more thing…]
My particular book tree has its own peculiar mix of doctrines that I discovered only after constructing it. (NOTE: The views of my tree do not necessarily reflect the views of this blog or its author.)
My book tree:
embraces teaching that is both didactic and narrative
wallows gleefully in human depravity
is egalitarian – or maybe complementarian?
is confidently heaven-bound
warns against backsliding
deals with behavior lapses simply and swiftly (and – let’s hope – privately)
encourages daily surrender and sanctification
puts a high priority on children’s ministries
cares for those in need
follows a congregational form of government
and lastly, has a definitive view of baptism.
Confession: I own too many books. Not just a few too many, or some too many. A lot too many.
Someone keeps saying it’s a problem.
I keep not listening.
So when I got an email today from one of my literature students with “book tree” in the subject line, I was intrigued. I thought it might be some kind of narrative thematic diagram resembling a family tree, which would be pretty cool.
But it wasn’t.
It was an idea. For a book tree. (Go figure.) Made out of books. To look like a tree. You know, for Christmas and all.
Which was so much cooler than cool I can’t even put it into words.
This email, and the resulting fervor it whipped up in my soul, is precisely why I don’t Pin. I would forfeit my life to this and that and such-and-such and so-and-so and ladeedahdeedoo and pretty soon I would be a crazy person who only converses with glue sticks and rotary cutters.
Proof positive is that I spent several hours tonight constructing this:
It was a lot more work than I expected. The light schematic is pathetic. In a few places, I had to jerryrig shims of folded paper to keep things level. I didn’t know how to finish it off. I made a mess of my bookshelves.
But oh my, I am delighted. Beyond words. Because not only do I love my books (too much, says someone) but I love the season that my new book tree celebrates. The incarnation. The Birth of Christ. The eucatastrophe of mankind’s history (for all you Tolkien fans).
Breathtaking indeed. Beyond words.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)