Tag Archives: Advent

Advent Time

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 1.26.58 PM

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.

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.


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.

The Darkest Night of the Year

One of my favorite Christmas traditions has always been the Christmas Eve candlelight service. As a child I probably liked it most for the getting-to-light-a-candle aspect (who doesn’t like playing with fire and wax?), though even then I felt the mystical power of seeing one light pierce the darkness and gradually begin to spread throughout the congregation, illuminating and warming the church sanctuary. It was a marvel to behold, especially when—as “Silent Night” or “Oh Holy Night” echoed throughout the candlelit room—I began to fathom the symbolic significance of the whole activity. It was the image of a world-changing light that spread everywhere from one humble little plastic-cup-encased white wax candle. The Incarnation.

This baby—born into strife, squalor, in a nondescript cave—was more than a feared little rebel threat and chink in the armor of the Roman machine. In time this humble little child set in motion a movement that surpassed Rome and all other empires in size, scope, and revolutionary impact. From Bethlehem the light spread through the dark sanctuary of the world, from the Middle East to Europe to the ends of the earth. Within two hundred years Christ’s world-changing life and gospel was being propagated and theologized by major figures in North Africa (Tertullian), Greece (Clement), Turkey (Polycarp), and Rome (Justin Martyr). Against strident opposition and persecution the light spread quickly and caught fire in some places (Europe), ultimately becoming the dominant cultural influence from that point onwards. 2009 years later, now in places like China and Sub-Saharan Africa, the light is shining brighter by the day.

The Christmas Eve candlelight services are more than just a nice symbolic act of remembrance, however. They are the continuation of a biblical tradition of likening Christ to images of light and darkness. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light,” wrote the prophet Isaiah (9:2). “On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” This was hundreds of years before Mary, Joseph or Jesus were even born, but it was an idea Jesus himself carried on as an adult. “While I am in the world,” he said, “I am the light of the world” (Matthew 9:5).

Tonight is the darkest night of the year. December 21: Winter solstice. It’s the shortest night of the year and the day when the earth is tilted the furthest away from the sun. It’s the day when light is the most elusive.

How fitting that in such a dark week, we celebrate the entry of light into the world. When the world was at it’s darkest—on that silent, cold night 2,000 years ago—cosmic light and eternal hope took human form as a baby (a baby!) born into the humblest of conditions for the sake of a dark, desperate world.

I love the 19th century Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” especially these lines:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Imagine! The hopes and fears of all the years—it all comes to a head at this one point, this turning point in the history of the universe. And of all things, it’s a baby! In him—in this everlasting light shining dimly from a manger—are met the collected pains, fears, tragedies, triumphs, hopes, cries, prayers, bellyaching and sufferings of everyone who has ever lived. Just think about the sheer volume of that!

All of it—all of the baggage we carry, all the things we fight against, the wars and hunger, losses and loves—it all looks toward this one singular point. This light. Like the Bethlehem star that alerted the wise men to the coming of Christ, it’s a light that shines high and bright, for all the world to see.

The spreading of that light, as symbolized in the Christmas Eve candlelight services, comes about through the church, which has been Christ’s “body” on earth ever since the resurrection. The light spreads (has never stopped spreading) through Christians who are willing to live up to the calling of Christ on the Sermon on the Mount:

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16)

It’s inspiring to think about being a carrier of this light—to recognize that I was once in darkness, but am now in the light of the Lord and must live as a child of this light (Ephesians 5:8).

On this Christmas Eve, as I light my candle and pass it on to my neighbor at church—as I’ve done year after year, for as long as I can remember—I will think about what it means to be a son of light. I’ll think of it when I’m holding my baby niece by the Christmas tree, pointing out the twinkling lights and angel ornaments. I’ll think about it if it snows (please Kansas, give me some snow!), waking up to that particularly bright color of light reflected on the purest of icy white.

Or I’ll think about it by looking up at the cold night and focusing on a star, thinking about how Jesus probably saw the same star too. Jesus who walked on the same planet that I do. Jesus who was God incarnate. God who made the stars and said “Let there be light” in the first place.

Happy New Year (Advent Thoughts)

2010 may still be a month away, but the new year has already begun. Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent–the first season in the church calendar year. Everything has reset, with newness and hope the only items on the agenda.

It was a crazy week and a crazy year for me. So many friends and family have lost their jobs. So many deaths, divorces, other bad things. Stresses keep coming, overwhelming as they always are. Mistakes made, plans foiled, Michael Jackson dead. Old and new friends enrich my life. Old and new struggles carry on.

But God with us. Emmanuel. We have reason to push on in faith.

Advent. It’s about anticipating and reflecting upon the mystery that is the Incarnation: the nearly incomprehensible moment when God entered human history by becoming a baby on earth.

God is with us. He’s not just some far-off abstraction or disembodied clockmaker idea. He became one of us. A human. Callouses, stomachaches, blood. And not only that, but he came as a baby! He could have appeared out of thin air as a 21 year old, or as a 30-year-old prophet ready for some serious ministry. But he chose to start where everyone else starts: in the womb. His incarnation was always about working through—not outside of—creation to reveal himself to us in ways we could understand. And a baby who is born and grows up and dies is something we can understand. It was God coming down to our level to bless our unfortunate little existence by becoming part of it. He came to be with us.

Advent reminds us that, in the midst of everyday struggles, we must affirm the reality of the everyday Incarnation. Jesus lived this life too. He also experienced it on good days and bad. He was rained on too. He probably had migraines occasionally. You better believe he knew suffering.

I love that Advent simultaneously forces us away from ourselves and our petty problems while also, in a way, affirming them. It’s a season of denying our self and our possibility in the face of the wholly Other that is the mysterious, Incarnate Emmanuel. But it’s also a chance for us to focus, to synthesize our various desires, issues, concerns, and identities into a cohesive oneness with the bewildering fact that we are here, and so is God. He is with us. There’s a reason why we sing “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” We share a planet—the dirt, air, water, DNA—with the creator of the universe. This is the most empowering and humbling fact of history, and the weight of it is immense. It is the reason Advent is historically a very solemn season: because the Incarnation cannot be taken lightly.

As I enter into Advent this year, I’m burdened by just as many hopes and fears as the next guy. There is pain and regret in my heart, love and confusion, physical and emotional imperfection, and immense exhaustion. I sometimes just want to drink eggnog or mulled wine and listen to Over the Rhine’s Darkest Night of the Year (for the record, probably the best Christmas album of all time) while languishing in self-pity and world weariness as stocks and bombs carry the torch of history’s tumultuous march.

But Advent accepts all that. It thrives on unsettledness, uncertainty, despair. Which is kind of bleak for a holiday season that is typically thought of as the merriest season of all. Until we recognize that our pain makes Advent all the more meaningful—to look forward, expectantly, longingly, to the moment when all the pieces (of our lives, of history, of heaven and earth) come together in a monstrous cymbal crash that reverberates in every corner and cranny of the concert hall.

I Understand Very Little (Some Advent Thoughts)

Yesterday I read this Newsweek article that attempts to debunk the apparently misguided biblical argument against gay marriage. I will say nothing more about it, except that the article hammered home one major point: Christianity and the Bible are frightfully misunderstood.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been researching an article that I am writing on the “missional” movement in Christianity. I’ve been interviewing dozens of professors, theologians, pastors, and church historians in efforts to understand what “missional” is saying about the purpose of the Christian church in the world. I will say nothing more about it, except that it reminded me of one thing: even Christians have trouble agreeing upon what Christianity really means.

These two instances, in combination with scores of other things (including but not limited to the plane crash that killed four people in San Diego, Oprah getting fat, and Handel’s Messiah), have reinforced to me the deep and abiding mystery that is Christianity. I mean, the word and the religion are not all that mysterious, but how it all works—the birth of Jesus, the death, the resurrection, and all the fancy words we use to make sense of it all (incarnation, justification, salvation, atonement)—is utterly and unavailingly mystifying.

But really, could it be any other way? We’re talking about God here, the eternal, omni-everything Being of beings, the Ultimate Concern (as Tillich would say) who created all things… and he condescended to our little planet in the form of an infant? And as this human, the person that history recorded as Jesus Christ, God made himself fathomable. This is how I look at Jesus: as the form through which God revealed the knowable part of himself to his creation.

It makes sense that Jesus was the complicated, counterintuitive, controversial figure that he was. He was God in a man’s body—fully human and fully God. No wonder we’re still talking about, wrestling with, trying to make sense of this guy. No wonder people still argue about what he meant by this or that, or “what he would do” in this or that scenario. No wonder we pray to him and sing songs about him, and go crazy every December in commemorate his birth.

God (aka Yahweh) was pretty complicated and mysterious before Jesus happened (i.e. in the Old Testament), but his mystery increased exponentially when he became a human. I mean, who does that??? I’ve read the Bible many times, I’ve heard Paul and the others when they talk about why God sent Jesus to earth and to the cross. And I still can’t fully understand what is going on. I mean, I understand enough. I understand that it was all out of love, for me, for a divine purpose, and that it was God moving to rescue his creation from self-destruction and sin. I understand the creeds, the theology, and I believe it wholeheartedly. But so much of it is still totally over my head.

And that is why Advent and Christmas are so wonderful. They are blatantly, audaciously inexplicable. They embrace mystery. They are about the mystery of God and Jesus. It’s comforting to know that all these thousands of years later, with centuries of intellect and science and progress and theology, we are just as awed and brought to our knees by the mystery as we ever were. The phenomenon is just clear enough that it has survived millennia and will survive forever onward, and mysterious enough to be worthy of worship.

And so we’ll press on, continuing in faith to be the church that God founded through Christ for the world. We don’t have to understand it all to be useful or meaningful. God is using his people in ways they scarcely can imagine. Our cognizant compliance is irrelevant.

But thanks be to God that we can understand some things. In the Christmas star, the cold winds, the nostalgic reverie of tinseled trees and warm rum and spiced cakes.

We can understand some things.