But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint –
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled…
from “The Dry Salvages” by T. S. Eliot
Empty wrapping paper strewn about the living room, ribbons pushed behind the couch, boxes ripped open and twisty-ties tucked into the carpet. The Christmas lights lit and extinguished, the feast eaten, the wine drunk. The “After Christmas Sales” scavenged, the unwanted gifts returned. Anticipation answered (with some disappointment), wonder erased, the holy light of candles and the silence of birth all gone. And in the bright light of morning on December 27th (or December 29th for that matter) one can’t help but wonder, what did it all mean?
Each year Christians around the world begin their liturgical or religious year with a period of waiting. This season, known as Advent, is a season intended to train the soul to live expectantly, to practice a posture of holy expectation as we simultaneously prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus while continuing to wait for his coming again. Then, with the service on Christmas Eve night, we begin to celebrate the birth of Jesus. For Christians he is not simply a good teacher or a prophet or a leader, he is the God who spoke creation into existence—the God who rules heaven and earth. And this God rolled all his holy awesomeness, all his power and knowledge up into a tiny ball—a cluster of cells—and was born just like any other baby. He chose weakness, dependence, ignorance, helplessness simply to be with his creation—this birth the first step in rescuing the world from the havoc we wreck. And then what? The presents and feasting in celebration of this great miracle typically give way to….nothing special.
The simple truth is that Advent’s promise of peace, of redemption, of joy is far from realized in our world. Although we continue to anticipate redemption, our experience of redemption is similar to the “day after Christmas.” We got some good things, saw some good friends, had a bit of quality family time (and more than a few uncomfortable family moments) but that ineffable hope—that longing that lies at the core of our identity—is left unsatisfied.
Every year, I approach the beginning of this season with the intention that somehow this year will be different. Somehow, this year the miracle of God rending the heavens to walk among us will last beyond Christmas evening. But one day is hardly long enough to learn to live in light of Christmas morning. Rather than a day, we need a week, a month, a lifetime of turning the mystery of God becoming a human being around and around. We need space to look at each facet, to hold this mystery to the light of Christmas morning and examine the nuances, the colors and the contours of God intruding on his creation.
And when we do, we begin to understand that the anticipation of Christmas eve and celebration of Christmas morning are hints of something we cannot yet truly guess. We only get the gift—the real gift of Christmas— in those unattended moments, lost in a shaft of sunlight, when we understand that God calls us each into a lifetime’s death in love. But not our own death, exactly. The Christmas gift we only half understand is God’s own ardor, his selflessness and self-surrender that will someday scar his newborn body. Through the blood of those scars, God marks our lives and our world as his own and promises to finish the work he started on that dark night so long ago.