We have heard the story so many times that we have grown used to it. The story of Jesus’ birth has become cozy legend and plastic myth. To counter the transplanting of the manger of the 1st century cow barn to the 21st century “live nativity,” let us try to hear the story as if for the first time.
Let’s try to imagine the situation.Israelis in exile. They are estranged in what was once their Promised Land. The winds that blow through the dusty streets whisper echoes of the Psalmist: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
The signs of exile are all around. The Jews pay taxes to their king, Herod, and he builds a wannabe temple that is void of the “shekinah” glory. There is the House of God, but not God’s presence. The furniture is in place, but no one is home. The building is in business, but the Proprietor doesn’t claim ownership. The priests do their service, but their noisy motions are muted by God’s deafening silence. This is the covenant people of God, but God is strangely absent from their midst.
The greatest sign of exile was the Roman soldiers patrolling the streets and the Roman crosses mocking any hope for change of power. How can the elected people of God be ruled and oppressed by a heathen nation? How can the chosen nation retain identity and hope when the triumph of the pagans meant the defeat of the God of Israel?
We hear of a young Jewish woman and man forced to traverse the country. Because of a strange pre-marital pregnancy, this young couple is at risk of excommunication from their communities and families. Hardly reaching the age of citizenship, they are called for the census. What is the purpose of the census? What is the purpose of the dangerous journey during the delicate period of pregnancy? Taxation. The Jews were being numbered so that they could be exploited. They were being counted for their tribute.Israelis in exile in her own country.
But more agonizing than the mock ruling of Jewish despots and more excruciating than the persecution of a foreign people is the fact that God is not speaking. It would all be bearable if there were purpose. It would all be supportable if God were near. But He wasn’t. It was a situation of violence, fear, confusion and hopelessness.
The status ofIsraelis reflected in the lives of the two young Jews, Joseph and Mary. They are poor, tired, dirty, and cold. As if being forced away from their home as conquered vassals was not degrading and dehumanizing enough, they are also denied tenancy. The vacancy in theTempleis transposed to “no vacancy” inBethlehem, not even a place for an expecting mother. There is no refuge, no place for rest and no one hospitable. They must have felt abandoned with the miracle Child in the womb. They must have felt alone, insecure, and scared. In a soiled barn and amidst malodorous animals, the cold wind whispered: where are you God? From within the silence that amplifies the dirty surroundings of desperation, God speaks His Word.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His “shekinah” glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John1:14).
Not in the temple, but in a cowshed, the glory of God comes. Not from the priestly podiums, but at the edge of the splintery manger, God’s Word addresses Himself to us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). But the Word is not past tense. It speaks ever present and ever new.
This isn’t word as symbol, like letters that symbolize sounds. This is Word as language: God is communicating Himself and is inviting humanity to speak with Him. This is not monolog: God speaks and we listen, or, inversely, we speak and God listens; this is dialog: God wants to interact with Him, speaking His language.
The Word is the language of God. “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (1:18). Jesus is the exegesis of the Father. This language sounds foreign, but familiar. It is foreign in that we don’t understand it. We are unsure that we have heard it. Yet, it is familiar in that it rings true in the depths of our beings, as if it has been speaking to us from the inception of our existence. “All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (1:3).
We come clumsily and inarticulate to the conversation, but we are lead by our “interior teacher” (as Augustine refers to Christ’s indwelling us in the Word). The Word is implanted in our hearts (James1:21).
Let us not let the abstractness remove ourselves from the reality of the story; we must remember that the Word is spoken in the midst of fear, pain, disappointment and insecurity. The Word is spoken in sleepy silence and baby cries. Wrapped in poverty and fragility, God discloses Himself.
Let us resist our tendency to refuse the Word because it is not adult and authoritative. Let us resist affirming that the baby represents Jesus’ humanity, stripped of His godliness. Let us resist affirming that this is Self-condescension, as if God just needed to come down and fulfill a pre-established set of criteria in order to save us. No, this is the Word “who although He existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied Himself…” (Philippians 2:6, 7). The Word is God – the Word spoken through the delicate, dependent baby.
“It has been traditional to see this Self-humbling as God in some way hiding or suspending or adding to or relinquishing his divinity in order to become man. But what if he was in Jesus, actually uncovering his divinity? Does the baby of Bethlehem not reveal God rather than obscure him? Is God’s nature not seen in the powerlessness (to human estimation) of the baby?”
The divinity of God is not hidden in the child; rather the baby is the revelation of God. This is the power of the baby. Isaiah prophesied with astonishing precision: “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.” The Son is not born but begotten. The Son is given; the child is born. In a messianic annunciation, Isaiah describes the coming of the Christ Child.
And the wolf will dwell with the lamb… and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little boy will lead them. The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6, 8-9).
The child is the metaphor of hope: hope for new beginnings, for renewal, and for the acceptance of the Reign of God.
This is where the Christ Child touches the street child. Since God was incarnate as a Child, every child has become a metaphor of hope. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me…” (Mark9:37). Whoever takes in a child, also takes in God. In children, God is waiting for us to take in God. In helpless children, God is waiting for our compassion. This is the spontaneous impression that the image of the Child in the manger awakens in us (Jurgen Moltmann). As a Baby in a barn the Word speaks to us, calls to us, and invites us.
The Word made flesh becomes Good News. “…there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over the flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the shekinah glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12). The Word is announced. The audience is shepherds – not nobles, not learned, not religious, but shepherds – those in solidarity with smelly animals and dirty beds. The Good News is born; the great joy is the Christ Child. The Word is heard and the shepherds entered the dialog of God: “the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen…” (2:20). The sign is a Child, wrapped in a diaper, and lying in a manger. This should baffle us. This should make us speechless. The sign is not the angel, not the proclamation, but the Baby and His poverty.
Let us now return to our 21st century lives. Yet let us find ourselves in the Story. In our estrangement from the world, from our families, from all that offers security; in exile, Diaspora and wilderness; in the oppression, confusion, violence and depression; in the loneliness, rejection, fear and disappointment; in the hopelessness, powerlessness and exploitation; in our dirty, cold corner of the world; in God-forsakenness, we find the precise and necessary conditions for God’s coming. The silence becomes Word; the “no room” becomes presence; the loathsome becomes great joy.
And Mary said, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bond slave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name. And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him. He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed. He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his decedents forever’ (Luke 1:46-55).
In the Child, in the Word, God invites us to intimate communication, to secret sharing, and to unceasing prayer.
Noi am auzit povestea atât de mult încât ne am obişnuit cu ea. Povestea naşterii lui Isus ni se pare o legendă comodă şi un mit plastic. Ca să ne opunem transplantării ieslei din hambarul de vaci la sceneta visionată în secolul 21, hai să încercăm să ascultăm povestea ca şi cum ar fi pentru prima oară.
Hai să încercăm să ne imaginăm situaţia. Israelul este în exil. Poporul este înstrăinat în ceea ce era odatăŢaraFăgăduinţei. Vântul care bate pe străzi prafuite şopteşte ecouri ale cuvintelor psalmistului: “Cum să cântăm noi cântările Domnului pe un pământ străin?” (Psalm 137:5).
Semnele de exil erau pretutindeni. Evrei plăteau taxele Împăratului, Irod, şi el legitimează domnia lui prin construirea unui pseudo-templu, lipsit de slavă “şekina.” Există Casa lui Dumnezeu, dar lipseşte prezenţa Lui. Mobila este montată, dar nu e nimeni acasă. Clădirea este deschisă pentru afacere, dar Proprietarul nu pretinde patrimonie. Preoţii îndeplinesc slujirea, dar acţiunile lor zgomotoase sunt amuţite de tăcerea asurzitoare a lui Dumnezeu. Aceasta este poporul cu care Dumnezeu a făcut legamant, dar în mod curios, El este absent din mijlocul lor.
Cel mai mare semn al exilului era soldaţii romani care îşi făceau rondul şi crucile romane care batjocoreau orice speranţă pentru o schimbare de putere. Cum putea poporul ales să fie domnit şi asuprit de un neam? Cum putea naţiunea alesă să-şi reţină identitatea şi speranţa când triumful păgânilor înseamnă înfrângerea lui Dumnezeu luiIsrael?
Auzim de o tânără fată şi un domn evreu care erau constrânşi să traversezeţara. Din cauza unei sarcinei premaritale, acest cuplu tânăr se afla în riscul de a fi excomunicat de comunităţile lor sociale şi familiale. Abia împlinind vârstă de cetăţenie, ei sunt chemaţi pentru recensământ. Care era scopul recensământului? Care era scopul acestei călătorii periculoase în timpul perioadei delicate a femeii însărcinate? Taxarea. Evreii erau numeraţi pentru a fi exploataţi. Erau socotiţi pentru tribut.Israeleste în exil în propria-iţara.
Dar o agonie mai mare decât pseudostăpânirea despoţilor evrei şi un chin mai mare decât prigonirea de către un popor străin este faptul că Dumnezeu nu vorbeşte. Totul ar fi suportabil numai dacă era un scop. Totul are fi fost posibil de îndurat dacă Dumnezeu ar fi fost aproape. Dar nu era. Domnea un climat de violenţă, frică, confuzie şi deznădejde.
Starea luiIsraeleste oglindită în vieţile celor doi evrei tineri, Iosif şi Maria. Ei sunt săraci, obosiţi şi mizerabili. Le este foame şi frig. Nu era destul de degradant şi dezumanizator ca vasalii cuceriţi sa fie forţaţi să-şi părăsească casa, le era refuzat până şi dreptul de a închiria. Spaţiul gol în Templu este transmutat la “nu este loc” în Betleem, nici loc pentru o femeie aflată în pragul naşterii. Nu era nici un refugiu, nici un adăpost pentru odihnă, nici un ajutor. Trebuie să se fi simţit abandonaţi cu Copilul miraculos în pântece. Trebuie să se fi simţit singuri şi înspăimântaţi, intr-o totala nesiguranţă. Într-un hambar zoios şi în preajma animalelor rău mirositoare, vântul rece şopteşte: unde eşti Doamne? Din cadrul tăcerii care amplifică mediul murdar care îi înconjoară, Dumnezeu Îşi rosteşte Cuvântul.
“Şi Cuvântul S-a făcut trup şi a locuit printre noi, plin de har şi de adevăr. Şi noi am privit “şekina” slava Lui, o slava întocmai ca slava singurului născut din Tatăl” (Ioan1:14)
Nu la Templu ci la grânar se manifestă slava lui Dumnezeu. Nu de la amvonurile preoteşti, ci de la ieslea de aşchie, Cuvântul lui Dumnezeu ni se adresează nouă. “La început era Cuvântul şi Cuvântul era cu Dumnezeu şi Cuvântul era Dumnezeu” (1:1). Dar Cuvântul nu este în timpul trecut; El vorbeşte în timpul prezent, omniprezent.
Nu este un cuvânt ca un simbol, ca şi literele care simbolizează sunete. Acesta este Cuvântul ca limba: Dumnezeu comunică şi invită umanitatea să stea de vorbă cu El. Nu este un monolog: Dumnezeu vorbeşte şi noi ascultăm, sau invers, noi vorbim şi Dumnezeu ascultă; acesta este un dialog: Dumnezeu vrea să interacţionăm cu El, vorbind limba Lui.
Cuvântul este limba lui Dumnezeu. “Nimeni n-a văzut vreodată pe Dumnezeu; singurul Lui Fiu, care este în sânul Tatălui, Acela L-a făcut cunoscut” (1:18). Sau ca în alte traduceri, “Acela L-a explicat.” Fiul Îl explică pe Tata. Isus este exegeza Tatălui. Limba această sună străin, dar familiar. Este străină încât n-o înţelegem. Nu suntem siguri dacă am mai auzit-o. Dar este familiară întrucât răsună cu adevărat în adâncimea fiinţelor noastre, ca şi cum ne vorbea de la începerea existenţei noastre. “Toate lucrurile au fost făcute prin Cuvântul; şi nimic din ce a fost făcut, n-a fost făcut fără El” (1:3).
Noi venim neîndemânatic şi nearticulat la conversaţie, dar suntem călăuziţi de “învăţătorul interior” (precum Sfântul Augustin s-a referit la sălăşluirea Cuvântulului în noi). Cuvântul este sădit în inimile noastre (Iacov1:21).
Hai să nu ne pierdem în abstracţia cuvintelor; trebuie să ţinem minte că rosteşte Cuvântul în mijlocul temerilor, durerii, dezamăgirii şi insecurităţii. Cuvântul vorbeşte prin liniştea somnului şi plânsul Pruncului. Învelit în sărăcie şi fragilitate, Dumnezeu se descoperă.
Hai să rezistăm tendinţei noastre de a refuza Cuvântul pentru că nu este adult sau autoritar. Hai să respingem afirmatia conform căreia Pruncul reprezintă doar umanitatea lui Isus, dezbrăcat de dumnezeirea Lui. Hai să ne opunem afirmaţiei că Bebeluşul este doar condescendenţa de Sine, ca şi cum Dumnezeu trebuia doar să coboare şi să împlinească o listă de sarcini că să ne salveze. Nu, acesta este Cuvântul “măcar că avea chipul lui Dumnezeu, totuş n-a crezut ca un lucru de exploatat să fie deopotrivă cu Dumnezeu, ci S-a dezbrăcat pe sine însuşi…” (Filipeni 2:6, 7). Cuvântul este Dumnezeu – Cuvântul rostit printr-un Bebeluş delicat şi dependent.
“Este tradiţional să se privească la smerirea de sine ca modul lui Dumnezeu de a ascunde, de a suspenda, de a adauga sau de a renunţa la divinitatea Lui ca să devină om. Dar dacă Dumnezeu prin Isus de fapt, descopera divinitatea Lui? Oare Pruncul din Betleem nu Îl descopera pe Dumnezeu mai degrabă decât de a-L face obscur? Nu este natura lui Dumnezeu văzută în neputinţa (după estimarea umană) a Pruncului?”
Divinitatea lui Dumnezeu nu este ascunsă într-un copil; mai degrabă, copilul este revelaţia lui Dumnezeu. Aceasta este puterea Pruncului. Isaia a proorocit cu precizia uimitoare: “Căci un Copil ni s-a născut, un Fiu ni s-a dat” (9:6). Fiul nu este născut ci dat; Copilul se naşte. Într-un anunţ mesianic, Isaia descrie venirea Copilul Hristos.
Atunci lupul va locui împreună cu mielul, şi pardosul se va culca împreună cu iedul; viţelul, puiul de leu, şi vitele îngrăşate, vor fi împreună, şi le va mîna un copilaş… pruncul de ţîţă se va juca la gura bortei năpîrcii, şi copilul înţărcat va băga mîna în vizunia basilicului. Nu se va face nici un rău şi nici o pagubă pe tot muntele Meu cel sfînt; căci pămîntul va fi plin de cunoştinţa Domnului, ca fundul mării de apele cari-l acopăr. (Isaia 11:6, 8-9)
Copilul este metafora speranţei: speranţa pentru începuturile noi, pentru înnoire şi pentru acceptarea Domniei lui Dumnezeu.
Aici este unde Copilul Hristos atinge pe copilul străzii. De când Dumnezeu s-a întrupat ca un copil, fiecare copil a devenit o metaforă a speranţei. Isus a spus, “Oricine primeşte pe unul din aceşti copilaşi în Numele Meu, Mă primeşte pe Mine…” (Marcu 9:37). Oricine îl primeşte pe un copil, Îl primeşte pe Dumnezeu. În copii, Dumnezeu aşteaptă să-L primim pe Dumnezeu. În copiii fără speranţă, Dumnezeu aşteaptă compasiunea noastră. Aceasta este şi impresia spontană pe care o trezeşte în noi Copilul din iesle. Printr-un Copil aflat într-un hambar, Cuvântul ne vorbeşte, ne cheamă şi ne invită.
Cuvântul care se face trup devine Vestea Bună. În ţinutul acela erau nişte păstori, care stăteau afară în câmp, şi făceau de strajă noaptea împrejurul turmei lor. Şi iată că un înger al Domnului s-a înfăţişat înaintea lor, şi slava (şekina) Domnului a strălucit împrejurul lor. Ei s-au înfricoşat foarte tare. Dar îngerul le-a zis: Nu vă temeţi: căci vă aduc o veste bună, care va fi o mare bucurie pentru tot norodul: astăzi în cetatea lui David, vi s-a născut un Mîntuitor, care este Hristos, Domnul. Iată semnul, după care-L veţi cunoaşte: veţi găsi un prunc înfăşat în scutece şi culcat într-o iesle” (Luca 2:8-12). Cuvântul este anunţat. Audienţa este constituită din nişte ciobani – nu nobili, nu învăţaţi, nu religioşi, ci păstori – cei aflati în solidaritate cu paturi soioase şi cu animale care miros urât. Vestea Bună s-a născut; mare bucurie este Copilul Hristos. Cuvântul este auzit şi ciobanii întră în dialog cu Dumnezeu: “păstorii s-au întors, slăvind şi lăudînd pe Dumnezeu, pentru toate cele ce auziseră şi văzuseră… (2:20). Semnul este un Prunc, înfăşat în scutece şi culcat într-o iesle. Asta ar trebui să ne conşterneze, să ne lase fără cuvinte. Semnul nu este îngerul, nu este anunţul glorios, ci un Prunc în sărăcia Lui.
Hai să ne întoarcem la vieţiile noastre în secolul 21. Haideti să ne regăsim în Poveste. În înstrăinarea noastră de lume, de familiile noastre, de tot ce înseamnă siguranţă; în exil, Diaspora şi pustiu; în oprimare, depresie, confuzie şi violenţă; în singurătate, respingere, frică şi dezamăgire, în deznădejdie, neputinţă şi exploatare; în colţul nostru murdar şi rece al lumii; în părăsirea de Dumnezeu, noi găsim condiţiile precise şi necesare pentru venirea Domnului. Tăcerea devine Cuvântul; “nu era loc” devine prezenţa; ceea ce era insuportabil devine o mare bucurie.
Şi Maria a zis: Sufletul meu măreşte pe Domnul, şi mi se bucură duhul în Dumnezeu, Mîntuitorul meu, pentrucă a privit spre starea smerită a roabei Sale. Căci iată că deacum încolo, toate neamurile îmi vor zice fericită, pentrucă Cel Atot Puternic a făcut lucruri mari pentru mine. Numele Lui este sfînt, şi îndurarea Lui se întinde din neam în neam peste cei ce se tem de El. El a arătat putere cu braţul Lui; a risipit gîndurile, pe cari le aveau cei mîndri îninimalor. A răsturnat pe cei puternici de pe scaunele lor de domnie, şi a înălţat pe cei smeriţi. Pe cei flămînzi i-a săturat de bunătăţi, şi pe cei bogaţi i-a scos afară cu mînile goale. A venit în ajutorul robului săuIsrael, căci Şi-a adus aminte de îndurarea Sa, cum făgăduise părinţilor noştri, – faţă de Avraam şi sămînţa lui în veac. (Luca 1:46-55)
În Copil, în Cuvânt, Dumnezeu ne invită la comunicare intimă, la împărtăşirea secretelor şi la rugăciune neîncetată. Cuvântul vorbeşte.
Upon hearing that she will bear a child, Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). She is a teenager. She is unwed. She doesn’t understand how she can possibly be pregnant. She consents to the Lord’s words spoken through the angel. And she rejoices.
Not only is Mary experiencing extreme personal insecurity; her people, the Israelites, are extremely vulnerable. The overwhelming majority of ethnic Israel is scattered among other countries and other ethnicities. The small percentage that has returned to Palestine is under the harsh Roman rule. They not only must work to meet the demands of the foreign power but also to pay the taxes of their own vassal king.
Far from the Roman throne, far from Herod’s palace, and far from Israel’s refurbished temple, a peasant girl receives the promise that the Messiah is coming. In the midst of economic hardship and political exploitation, in the face of hunger and need, and before the Messiah has come, Mary rejoices.
The economic and political crises that we experience today may be rough, but I wonder how they compare to Mary’s experience. Not only is her nation under brutal oppression and not only does she not have the modern benefits of running water, electricity or petroleum, but she also faces the likelihood of being marginalized by her family and society. In such a context we should expect fear or confusion or tears. In fact, if someone would rejoice in such circumstances, we would think they were crazy.
In the midst of job-loss, falling stock markets, failing currencies, deceptive political rhetoric, growing poverty, and crafty exploitation, Mary sings a song. And the Church has kept the song as her own, singing it in anticipation of God’s salvation. But now, as in Mary’s day, the “inappropriate” outburst of joy may scandalize those who have not experienced the good news that salvation is come. God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (1:51-53)
The Christmas season is already here, and we still feel like we haven’t caught up on all that God has been doing in our midst over the past months.
In September we helped initiate a Day Center in a village called Tudor Vladimirescu that is about a 40 minute drive outside of Galati. The chairperson of our board of directors purchased an old house and transformed it into a Day Center. While we are still working on acquiring all the necessary permits, we have enrolled 6 children thus far. They are helped with their homework and have times for games and art. As you can imagine, the situation in a village are different than in the city. Many of the kids are living in families with substance abuse and domestic violence. They have less access to running water and heat and do not benefit as much from social services. As we get to know the kids and receive new ones, we hope to develop activities that are truly supportive. Anca Nebunu is coordinating the Center, but we are praying that God will raise up others to help Anca and we are praying for the resources to develop the Center.
Since September we have been blessed with three interns, one from the U.S. and two from Scotland. They have been learning about Romanian culture by living with host families and studying Romanian. So that they can understand more about Word Made Flesh, our vision and our approach, I have been leading book discussions (which has given me the opportunity to re-read books that I haven’t perused for years). Our interns have been helping us with activities like re-doing our website, teaching dance, and figuring out the kids’ health issues. They have been a huge help to us. As they discern their vocations and future involvement, we pray that they will continue to develop community here with us. We also continue to pray for God to raise up non-Romanian long-term staff.
This autumn we have also been grateful to begin working more closely with a newer church plant near our Community Center. Some of the children attend the church, and Oana, our social worker, has begun leading the church’s children’s program on Saturday. We pray that other families in the neighborhood will integrate into the church, and we pray for a fruitful collaboration into the future.
We have continued our adult literacy program. During the summer we taught reading. This autumn we focused on writing. After the word got out that the adults that did the summer program are already reading, we had many more participants this autumn. We plan on starting a new reading module in January.
We are now planning our Christmas activities. The kids are learning carols – which is especially funny and challenging for the new children. We are preparing presents. We are organizing a Christmas drama, which the kids will perform for their parents. And we are planning our all-night Christmas party for the kids. Our prayer is that each child and their entire family will understand and experience the Son’s coming into the world, His life with us, and His life for us.
Thank you for praying for us and for all your support over the past months. We are extremely grateful to participate with you in what God is doing in Romania among marginalized families.
Yours in Christ,
David and Lenutsa Chronic
We have two conceptions of the future. One is how we normally think about the future. It is the time ahead of us. Although we don’t know what the future holds, we can predict the probability of events happening in the future by extrapolating the past and present. There are even scientists, called futurologists, who specialize in predicting the future based on current trends. This conception of the future gives us a sense of control over what is yet to happen.
The other conception of the future is advent, which means coming. We anticipate an event based on a prophetic promise. Advent is a surprise. It is not the continuation of time into the future; rather, it is the coming of the future into our present experience. It is an interruption. But advent is so discontinuous with our world and so unexpected that it more than a simple interruption that disturbs us and then allows us to return to our normal lives. Advent is an interruption that affects everything forever.
The danger of meditating on the coming of the Messiah through the first perspective of future is that we have a sense of what to expect. At the first Advent, everything was a surprise. Although there had been expectation for the Messiah, the way that he came was completely unexpected.
This is also the danger of anticipating Christmas every December 25th. We associate Advent with the cycle of the seasons. When it gets cold, we begin to expect Christmas. With its annual repetition, we get used to Advent. We get used to Magi, shepherds, and miraculous births. In a contradiction of terms, Advent becomes nostalgic.
But we can actively resist our tendency to turn Advent into a cyclical, foreseen future. We can try to bracket out the adult life of Jesus and the development of church theology as we read the early chapters of the Gospel narratives. We can ask ourselves what were they hoping for, how were their expectations fulfilled, how were expectations redefined, and how were they surprised?
We can also resist the temptation to control Advent by doing the unexpected or by doing something new, something different and something challenging. We can ask God for the grace to see the unexpected.
We can also reflect on Advent through the lens of the Second Advent. We have the prophetic promise that Jesus will come again. We don’t know when. We don’t know how. If his first coming is of any indication of his second coming, then I would postulate that we will be surprised by how unexpected Jesus’ glorious coming will be.
Although our waiting for the Second Advent is one of uncertainty, questioning and astonishment, we are also aware that the future of the kingdom of God is breaking into our present – even here and now. Our anticipation of God’s coming helps us to look for the signs of God’s kingdom in our midst. This may be Jesus’ invitation, given through the hungry, to the wealthy to be generous. It may be the praying, touching and healing of the sick by the Spirit. Or it may be the Father’s words and the Father’s presence communicated to you today. The signs of the kingdom of God cultivate our hope and make us long even more the fullness of his Advent. This is our future.
I will call him Nicholas – an English variant of his Romanian name. Nicholas has a toothy grin that he often flashes, revealing the deep joy of childhood. He is the youngest of four brothers and an uncle to a two-year-old nephew. He lives in social housing at the top of a hill in the city’s flood plain.
On my first visit to Nicholas’ home, I was greeted by pigeons fluttering overhead and chicks and ducks filing along the narrow path that led up the hill. In the cleft of the clay, Nicholas’ family has built a roost for their various poultry. Nicholas had told me about his flock of pigeons that he faithfully cared for, but I didn’t know about the ducks and chickens. I thought that they must be a good source of food for the family, only to learn from his mother that they are too attached to them to slaughter them. The family cares for the birds out of the pure joy of having them. (They do have a pig, fattened on kitchen scraps that they will butcher at Christmas).
Christmas – this year will be a difficult holiday for Nicholas’ family. In the center of their small yard, they have dug an outdoor toilet. On the other side of the yard is their small, two-room house, built out of a wood frame and thatch. Although they have no running water, they have a little kitchen in the entry way, where they cook on a small gas-powered stove. The cracked and corroding floor is insulated with rugs, and couches covered with wet laundry line the wall. When the family finds wood scraps or when they receive firewood from a benefactor, their terracotta stove heats up the main room in which there is a large bed and a television that is always turned on. On the bed lies Nicholas’ father. He body is emaciated, the skin hanging loosely from his protruding bones.
Last year the family learned that their father has cancer. Although he wasn’t employed with proper working papers, he did work and he did bring home money and food. Nicholas has watched his father change from the strong bread-winner to one who is weak and dependent. As his father has grown weaker and weaker, so Nicholas’ attendance at school has been less and less frequent, his tantrums and fights with schoolmates have become more recurrent, and his joyful smile is shown more and more seldom.
It is a strange world in which cancer is “good” news for a family. Because Nicholas’ mother has to carry her husband without wheelchair to the outhouse or to the hospital and has to cook and clean for him, she is given a monthly “care-giver” salary. Without this source of income, the family would be even more desperate.
Last week Nicholas and I worked off some of his surplus energy by digging in the garden. As we plowed up the soil, I asked him about his grandmother and cousins who live on the other side of the tracks in a squatter community. Although his extended family is living in an even more impoverished environment, Nicholas smiled widely as he told of his grandmother and of all his little cousins. When I asked them what they would do for Christmas, Nicholas just shrugged. Then I asked him if he would like give his cousins presents for Christmas. I explained that he would have to work a few hours in order to get the gifts. Nicholas smiled again, and then he started to dig faster.
Although we are witnessing the inner and outer turmoil in Nicholas and his family, his joy and his generosity remind me of Nicholas’ namesake, a saint famous for his gift-giving and his prayers for healing. In the English-speaking world, we have blended Saint Nicholas with Father Christmas, but in other parts of Europe, Saint Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th. Saint Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop, credited for bringing healing to the sick through his intercessory prayer. He is also famous for his secret gift-giving. After visiting the Saint, children often found coins in their shoes. That led to the tradition, still practiced in Romania, in which children leave their shoes at the door in order to find them in the morning, filled with gifts.
Unlike Saint Nicholas, our Nicholas doesn’t benefit from a stable church community, the luxury of a good education, or the wealth of the episcopate. Yet, our Nicholas opens a window through which we see surprising sources for joy and giving. Although he has little, Nicholas is a miraculously full of generosity. Although his family is needy, they are full of compassion, even for dozens of pet birds. Although Nicholas is presently experiencing deep pain, his smile cannot be restrained.
We pray that Nicholas will be graced with the other charisma of his namesake: healing. With Nicholas and his family, we pray that God would touch and heal his father. We pray that God would be especially present to them this Christmas. And, as Nicholas gives the presents that he worked for to his little nephew and cousins, we pray that the joy and generosity evident in Nicholas’ life will touch others.
The promise of the coming Messiah had been pronounced. The promise provoked anticipation. There was the prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36). Over 700 years earlier, her tribe had been exiled from Israel and largely assimilated amongst other ethnicities. As one of the few representatives of her tribe, she awaited their return from exile and the restoration of Israel (2:38).
Anna was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four (2:36). She had suffered the loss of her husband, bread-winner and family-head. She endured as a female prophet. If women in today’s world have a tough time sharing God’s word, imagine the difficulties Anna confronted in the patriarchal culture of her day. She waited and waited. She was 84.
Anna never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day (2:37). Her waiting was active, cultivated by days and nights, weeks and years of worship, prayer and fasting. When will the Messiah come?
We live on the other side of the Messiah’s coming, but we await his return. We have received the promise that Jesus will come again to resurrect the dead, to judge and to renew creation. In our waiting we witness injustice, oppression, evil and death. Knowing that the Messiah will come again makes the sickness, subjugation and wickedness all the more intolerable. We cry out with the martyrs at heaven’s altar, “How long until you come?” (Revelation 6:10).
Like Anna we participate in the long wait of all ethnicities for the day when the kingdoms of the earth become the kingdoms of our Lord. Like Anna we bear loneliness and social exclusion, honing in on God’s words that serve as daily nourishment for the wait. Our waiting takes the form of prayer and fasting, knowing that God is mysteriously waiting with us. We ask for signs of salvation, signs of healing, signs of deliverance. But where it seems that oppression and sin win the day, our waiting is painful. It means enduring. And we keep waiting, aging and anticipating, knowing that death will not have the last word. We believe the Messiah will come.