Tag Archives: Advent

Advent Time

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I love the season of Advent for a lot of reasons, not least the way it embraces the messiness of existence in a manner appropriate to the chaos of the month in which it falls.

But today I’ve been thinking about the way that Advent forces us to reflect on time in a unique way, in both looking back and looking forward, remembrance and imagination of times past and times to come.  The fact that today is my birthday aids in my reflection. Birthdays are steps out of time in a weird way, “just another day” but also not. They are 24 hours long just like any day, but they hold a disproportionate place in our memories and our hopes. They are kairos moments (as opposed to chronos)and as such they remind us that time is less mundane and more miraculous than we often give it credit.

Movies capture this as well. An excellent recent essay on Interstellar illustrates how the film becomes a sort of meta reflection on the way movies reflect the realities of time back to us:

A movie is, itself, an act of relativistic time compression. All movies are a capture of moments of time reconstructed into a semblance of persistence… The universe’s rules are given dramatic life after [Interstellar’s] tragic first expedition to the water planet. Upon return the astronauts learn that 23 years have passed in just over an hour. When Cooper watches a series of messages taking him through two decades of his children’s lives, it is the maximal example of the universal act of anyone watching recorded footage of a loved one. Because all recorded media is a capture of a moment of the past, and to view it is to observe that the true constant in the universe is not the speed of light but our passage through time. Time may distort, your reference perception of it may shift, but we only ever move forward through it. Interstellar compresses the brutal truth of this absolute into a purely expressionistic tragedy, the movie itself distorting time in order to let us feel the full weight of its tragedy, the way our lives slip through our hands, our loved ones age, our children proceed into the future, into a few minutes.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, one of 2014’s best films, also captures this “lives slipping through our hands well.” Time is a frequent subject of Linklater’s (see the Before trilogy), but Boyhood is the director’s most forceful embrace of cinema’s ability to confront the viewer with the reality of time. As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in Sculpting in Time:

“As he buys his ticket, it’s as if the cinema-goer were seeking to make up for the gaps in his own experience, throwing himself into a search for ‘lost time.’ In other words he seeks to fill that spiritual vacuum which has formed as a result of the specific conditions of his modern existence: constant activity, curtailment of human contact, and the materialist bent of modern education.”

Advent does the same thing; it meets us where we are but helps us transcend time. On one hand it zooms us back to history’s most kairotic moment ever: the incarnation of God in flesh, the Creator involving himself in the physical story of creation, in the fulness of time. But Advent also zooms us forward to the “not yet” consummation of history, the coming again of Christ judge and rule and restore this broken world. All of it is held together in the mystery of the incarnation.

In our house this week we’ve been listening a lot to “Nine Lessons & Carols” by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. It’s beautiful Christmas music. As I listen to it I feel the back-and-forward, now-and-not-yet tension of Advent. The live recording makes me imagine what it must have been like to be there, in the glorious King’s College Chapel, listening to the choral voices and organ in person. It reminds me of times I’ve been in that sacred space myself, worshipping with dear friends who I may not see again in my lifetime. The music stirs longing in my heart for eschatological resolution–for the day when the absence of friends, family members, and the agony of time’s relentless forward motion will give way to a cathartic presence and rest.

The relentlessness of time can be unbearable, but Advent helps us bear it. It allows us to slow down, pause, and enter into time in a new way. Devotionals like the Biola Advent Project help us in this. I pray that God grants you a profound, out-of-time encounter with his presence this Advent.

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Oh Gracious Light

Advent is a season of light and dark. As much as the media and the prevailing spirit of the season tries to frame Christmastime as an endless array of cheer and merriment, there’s no getting around the reality of our dark, treacherous, weary world. But it’s better that way. The light shines brighter in the dark.

Advent celebrates the moment when true light entered into our dark world. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is. 9:2).

The baby in Bethlehem was hope, redemption, God with us. Present in the midst of our suffering; familiar with our struggle. Emmanuel.

The baby was a flicker of light that became a flame that swept across the world, illuminating the dark in all corners of creation.

But the darkness persists. The weary world rejoices at Christ our hope. But the world is still weary. The beauty of Advent is that it accepts weariness, even embraces it. It is joy in the midst of weariness. Joy mixed with stress, struggle, pain, lament.

Last Thursday’s Advent devotional from the Biola Advent Project illustrates it well. The reflection, “The True Light,” was written by art professor Loren Baker, who wrote, “As we journey towards Bethlehem, our joyful anticipation of Christmas is best described by the words of the Reverend Phillip Brooks (1835-1903). May all of our ‘hopes and fears’ be met in Him tonight.” Maja Lisa Engelhardt’s painting, “I Am the Light of the World” accompanied Loren’s reflection, as did the song “O Gracious Light” by The Brilliance:

O Gracious Light, so pure and bright
Dispel the darkness of our hearts
That by Your brightness we may know the light

Less than two weeks before his devotional published on the Advent Project website, Loren Baker took his own life.

The Biola community is still in mourning. It’s hard to fathom what led such a beloved professor to such a dark place, especially as we read his words about the “joyful anticipation of Christmas” and the “True Light.” As president Barry H. Corey wrote in an e-mail to Biola students, staff and faculty following Loren’s passing, “While we may never know what prompted [Loren] to make this decision, we know he loved the Lord and are confident of the mercy and grace of God.”

Kira and I have been listening to the song “Oh Gracious Light” regularly this week, struggling to reconcile the light and darkness of Loren’s final weeks, as we listen to the The Brilliance sing so passionately in petition for the Gracious Light to “dispel the darkness of our hearts.” The song is healing; it’s more a prayer than a carol, and a prayer that is simultaneously mournful and hopeful, a lament and a thanksgiving.

Such is the nature of Advent. Such is the nature of our “now and not yet” existence. Darkness is all around us, even in our hearts. Sometimes the darkness gets the best of us. Sometimes the light fills our hearts so fully that we feel like we may burst.

Entering into Advent is accepting both realities and posturing ourselves in an expectant mode: waiting for the dark night to give way to dawn’s light; for shootings and sickness and suicide to give way to Shalom; for the restless groaning of our hearts to finally find rest.

Advent is about longing, tension, the meantime of life. We light candles, we look at Christmas lights, we carry on… Looking with hope to the Bethlehem star, begging the Gracious Light to rid this world of darkness, once and for all.

Biola’s Advent Project

I love Advent. It’s a topic I frequently write about on this blog, and it’s a season I always enjoy. It’s the season of the year that embraces joy, lament, tension and mystery in exactly the right measure. Now if only it also weren’t the busiest season of the year!

This year I have been proud to be a part of the Biola Advent Project, which is a like a traditional Advent calendar for the digital age, with an artsy twist. Each day throughout Advent the website will unveil a new devotional, consisting of written reflection, visual art and musical selections. Each day features a different contributor’s reflection (I wrote one for Dec. 30) as well as a different artist’s Advent-themed art and a different musician’s song. The whole thing is (I think) a brilliant  application of technology to the Christian calendar.

Check it out at http://ccca.biola.edu/advent/ and share it with anyone who you think would enjoy this invitation to reflect on the beauty and mystery of this season.

Light And Dark

Christmas has in our culture become associated with all things “cheer,” “goodwill,” and “merriment”: eggnog, Santa Clause, white elephant parties, sparkly sweaters, twinkly lights and tinsel galore. And for good reason. This is a holiday inspired by the coming of the world’s salvation in the form of Jesus Christ.

Joy to the world indeed. The Incarnation is a reason to take heart, to be joyful, to feel good about life.

And yet the Advent season is also unmistakably somber. It has a dark side.

As Ross Douthat eloquently put it in today’s New York Times:

…the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.

We celebrate the good news of God’s original Advent: coming down to dwell with us and to redeem the world. But this is also a season of longing. We look to the second coming of the Messiah, waiting, waiting, waiting for the day when he will return to right all wrongs, bringing final justice and peace to this unjust and bloody planet. In the meantime we exist in a state of hopeful expectancy, struggling to make do in a broken, cruel, frail world that wearily waits for a new and glorious morn.

Advent is about a light that came into the darkness and spread outward to change the world. The classic Christmas Eve candlelight service captures that well. But the world is still a very dark place. And sometimes the lights seem so dim. It makes one wonder: When Christ came to earth and died on the cross, why didn’t the light once-and-for-all overcome the darkness? Why is our world as dark (or darker, seemingly) as ever? What’s the purpose in this?

Unthinkable tragedies like what happened at Sandyhook Elementary School unsettle us in part because they make us ask “problem of evil”-type questions of God: Why does He allow the innocent to suffer like this? How does this fit into His plan?

I can’t begin to explain it, but one way I have tried to make sense of it in my own life is by thinking about all of creation as a massive piece of art: an epic story, canvas, or symphony, upon which God is the author and artist and conductor.

Art is not any good if it has no conflict or contrast. The best paintings are the ones that exhibit the most stunning usage of both light and dark. The best novels and movies are the ones that throw all manner of roadblocks, challenges and pains at the protagonist on his or her way to a cathartic resolution. The best symphonies are the ones that include sections of jubilation, sections of lament, and lots of dynamic contrast (soft, loud, pleasant, dissonant) on the forward movement toward grand conclusion.

In short: contrast is fundamental to beauty. The beauty of a sunrise depends on the dark night that precedes it. The sweet smell of nourished, fertile fields could not exist apart from the terrifying thunder and lightening that accompanies a rainstorm. Springtime must follow the long, cold winter.

I remember visiting Yellowstone National Park as a kid, a few years after the massive wildfires that ravaged nearly a third of the park. As we surveyed the devastated, sad landscapes of barren, burned-down forests, it was hard to believe the park rangers when they insisted that this would in the long run be a good thing for the park’s ecosystem: that destructive fires were an essential part of the cycle of life, and that soon a whole new infant forest would emerge from the ashes. Sure enough, when I visited Yellowstone a decade later, new life is exactly what I saw. Beautifully green sprouts were shooting up amidst the charred remains of old stumps and branches.

It’s easy to see how the beauty in nature is dependent on harsh, seemingly “fallen” realities. But it’s harder to look at the slaughter of 6 and 7 year-olds in an elementary school classroom and see it as part of some big, beautiful work of art. It seems almost crass to think about it in those terms.

But I suspect that at the end of all things, when this story is long-concluded and a new creation has been birthed (see Rev.21 & 22), we will remember the story of this world as the greatest story ever told–a grand, epic battle between a very present evil and a very present grace; a narrative of darkness and despair that was always intertwined with love, beauty and hope; a story filled with many downs and many ups, many brilliant moments and many heartbreaking tragedies.

In the life of Christ we saw it all in microcosm: a joyous birth amidst Herod’s unspeakable slaughter; Christ’s miracle-working amidst throngs of poor, suffering and sick; wedding feasts where wine flowed; Roman torture where blood gushed. Birth and life and death. And then life again. Ups and downs. Lights and darks.

Oh what a magnificent story it is. And what a story it continues to be.

On Aging and Advent

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we could remember as far back as the moment of our birth–that slimy, turbulent transition from the comfort of a warm, dark womb into the unkind cold, harsh bright light of life outside. What emotions, thoughts, hopes, and fears would accompany such a memory? As it is, I can only remember about 27 of my 30 years… my memories begin around age three.

When Jesus turned 30, could he recall the moment of his own birth? That epic, heavenly-hosts-rejoicing mystery in which God incarnate dwelled within a teenage girl’s womb one minute, and cried and breathed in Bethlehem air the next? Was his memory God-like and infinite, or was it as limited as mine, recalling only shadows and bursts of nascent consciousness from his earliest years?

I like to think it was the latter.

Here on the eve of the first Sunday of Advent, and two days before my 30th birthday, I’ve been thinking a bit about aging. Turning 30 feels to me to be the first birthday where I’ve really contemplated the reality of mortality–that my body is gradually breaking and my breath will one day fail me.

Time and aging are weird, earthy, fleshly things. But it’s what we know. All we know. How does it, then, feel so peculiar and unnatural? Why is it that, when I pause to venture into my own distant past–waiting for the school bus, building campfires with my dad, playing in the creek and the riverbank with my friends–my heart feels so weighty with longing? How can instants gone by, archived pictures in my mind, stir up such discontent?

I think Lewis captures it well in Reflections on the Psalms when he writes:

We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.

The eternal enveloped in time, embodied in humanity, Christ must have felt this bafflement with temporality even more than I do. If it feels to me that I’m a fish out of water, I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to Christ.

Or perhaps it felt just the same.

I stand in awe of the Incarnation for precisely this reason: that in Jesus Christ, the Divine became a man just like me, a breakable body with tender emotions, longings,  vulnerabilities, maladies. In “the fullness of time” (I love the mystery of this phrase), the hopes and fears of all the years were met in a man called Emmanuel. God was with us. Walking the same mountains. Breathing the same air. A part of the same decaying system of life, death and earthiness.

As I consider my own life–the 30 years already lived and whatever I may live from here–I take solace in the fact that Jesus Christ was here too. He turned 30 once. Maybe he also reflected on his first three decades of life with a mix of gratefulness and curiously somber nostalgia. I wonder if he knew where he was going at that point… where his 30s would lead him. Or maybe he felt as open-ended and uncertain as I do now, confident only that he would seek his Father’s will.

All I know is that the Incarnation gives me hope. Christ is familiar with the struggles I face and the wonders I behold. He knows that feeling of joy mixed with sorrow when one looks back on the past: that purple sunrise in the desert, that night of endless storytelling around a campfire, those special breakfasts Grandma used to make. He understands the disconcerting realization that one’s capacity for dreaming and accumulating “to-dos” is far bigger than the breadth of accomplishments one’s fleeting life can accommodate.

Ours is a life of chronic dissatisfaction and unrelenting pace. We are all speeding forward in time and age, leaving in our wake the things we did and didn’t do, plunging ahead with only a vague sense of purpose and perspective. It would be enough to drive anyone crazy.

And yet the Incarnation.

God redeemed creation. Christ took on temporality to make possible for us a timeless future. In the fullness of time. A new world of peace. A weary world that will soon see rest.

Rejoice.

Advent & Malick

Terrence Malick has never made a Christmas film, but I think his films, collectively, have a lot to say to us as we meditate on the meaning of Advent. Before you groan and say, “here McCracken goes about Malick again,” let me explain.

At it’s core, Advent is a season in limbo, in between the first and second comings of Jesus. It’s a season about eschatological longing as much as it is about nostalgic joy for the Incarnation of God as man. It’s about longing for and awaiting the coming kingdom, the restoration of creation to a state of shalom and fully realized glory. A key word is “restoration,” for within the mystery of Advent is a deeply felt longing and remembrance of that original Eden, so long ago lost and yet made possible again in Christ.

In many ways, Advent is about existing in between two paradises. One lost. One still to come. Both are ever present in the believer’s consciousness, as persistent reminders of fallenness intermingle with persistent, grace-filled interjections of hope. And it is here that I think Malick’s cinematic vision has much to offer.

Consider his most recent film, 2011’s Tree of Life, which very literally depicts an original paradise (at least the creation of it) and a eschatological one (which, even if just a reverie or dream, is still very much an eschatological vision of Shalom restored). The Bible begins and ends with the “Tree of Life” (in Eden and in the Revelation 22 New Jerusalem), and in many ways the film echoes this bookended structure, with the middle section being the story of existence–struggling between sin/nature and redemption/grace–writ small in a tiny Texas town. In Tree of Life, Malick’s characters experience that Advent tension between darkness and innocence lost on one hand and a coming reconciliation/restoration of goodness on the other.

Malick’s other films reflect similar themes. In Badlands, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play Adam/Eve type characters who “fall” and are banished from Eden, shamed in their fallenness and yet curiously moved by the beauty of life around them, even on the run. Days of Heaven features similar themes of shamed sinners in search of redemptive paradise and a fresh start in the picturesque wheat fields of West Texas. In The Thin Red Line, Witt (Jim Caviezel) opens the film in paradise, on tropical beaches and indigo blue waters in Papau New Guinea. But then the reality of sin sets in, and war and death; everything is changed, and yet Witt still sees a spark of glory. The film ends with images of Witt once again in paradise, and the rest of the soldiers on a boat leaving the horrors of Guadalcanal, heading to some new shores of a better world.

Malick’s next film, The New World, picks up that image by opening with colonists on a boat, landing on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia: the New World. But as with Malick’s other films, the Edenic idealism of this “new beginning” paradise is disrupted soon by famine, war, and a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas that doesn’t last. And yet as the film goes on, something keeps pushing Pocahontas on, in spite of great shame and hardship. Glimpses of glory call her forth, giving her reasons to hope; perhaps the best is indeed still to come.

An inherent aching for Eden persists in each of Malick’s films, as each character instinctively strives for a fresh start in the midst of our brokenness. Indeed, I think every human feels this. Time and time again we fail, and yet some animating spirit of good keeps us on track, keeps us striving for the best, between the two trees.

This is what Advent is about: a hope that keeps us going, keeps us exploring, creating, cultivating, loving, making order out of chaos. It’s the lingering instinct of our created purpose; it’s the impact of the Incarnation: the Divine Creator come down to creation to redeem mankind and succeed where Adam failed, providing an example of humanity as it was created to be.

If Easter is about Jesus’ death and resurrection, Advent is about the curious thing that happened next. Jesus didn’t stay on earth to rule his kingdom. He ascended unto heaven and left his followers–the church, animated by the Holy Spirit–to carry the torch of kingdom work, to long and ache for Jesus’ promised return but in the meantime to strive to be the humans we were meant to be, to spread the good news, to resist evil, to order creation and bring about flourishing.

Like Adam before us, and Noah, and Abraham and Israel, followers of Jesus are called to bring light to the darkness; to spread the illumination like in those candle light Christmas Eve services of our youth; or like that little blue candle and mysterious wispy flame in The Tree of Life. It’s Ruach. The Spirit of God. Reminding us of hope, empowering us to carry on.

Advent Prayer Requests

Oh Jesus, come. The world groans for you.

The streets are bloody and the debts are rising. There are riots all around, anxieties about the future, 72-day marriages, 5th grader suicides, political stalemates, crashes of every sort, too-high heating bills, faucets that don’t work, pencils that smear instead of erase, milk that goes sour, teeth that get cavities, and cancer that keeps coming back.

Messiah, come.

Come and bring justice to the perpetrators of evil: The dictators who oppress, the pedophiles who abuse, the rich who swindle, the thieves and murderers and liars and cheaters and addicts… Basically, all of us. Judge us, refine us, renew us oh Lord. Cast our sins into the depths of the sea. Show your faithfulness to us oh God, as you did to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.

Bring a father to the son who’s never known one. Bring a day of rest to the mother who hardly stops. Bring buckets of cold, clear water to the parched lands throughout the world. Bring peace to the places where war has settled in. Bring hope to the suffering in Japan, and Joplin, and every place in shambles.

Oh sprouted blossom from the root of Jesse, come and heal the nations.

Give hearing to the deaf, sight to the blind, joy to the lowly. Bind up the wounds of your people.

We are all hurting. Broken feet. Infected cuts. Insecurity. Heartbreak.

We are all sick. Coughing. Contagious. Medicated. Prone to wander.

We are all tired. Of work. Of failure. Of the persistence of disappointment.

We are all hungry. For a community that will last. For love that doesn’t fizzle. For something–anything–of permanence. To know ourselves. To know the truth. To understand how it all makes sense. To see the face of God.

In the midst of all this, Jesus came.

Is coming.

Is here.