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Let Every Heart Prepare
Meditations for Advent and Christmas
By Barbara Cawthorne Crafton
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 1998 Barbara Crafton
All rights reserved.
First Sunday of Advent
From human will you do not spring, But from the Spirit of our God.
Attrib. Ambrose of Milan (340–397); trans. Charles P. Price (B. 1920), Hymn 55
* * *
The Virgin Birth has fallen on hard times in recent decades—it has seemed to many women, and to some men, that emphasis on the virginity of Mary has put those of us who long ago abandoned that state at a disadvantage by comparison with her. And it is certainly true that the Church has often exhibited a horror of human sexuality that has done nobody any good and many people considerable harm.
But is squeamishness about sex really what the Virgin Birth is all about? There is evidence in Scripture that disagreement about its particulars has been around just about from the beginning—nobody knows exactly what Mary's medical condition was, and nobody ever will. But the fact that this birth was an interruption of the normal course of human history is something everyone has agreed on: The life of Jesus was not an ordinary life. It had an extraordinary impact on the world. In Christ, the mysterious domain of God crossed over into the predictable domain of human beings. The Virgin Birth was not the last time something happened involving the life of Jesus that was difficult to understand. Hard as it is to swallow, it is nothing compared with what we'll have to deal with come Easter morning, a few short months from now. Look on it as a little something by way of a warm-up.
We don't have our babies just the way Mary did. We are assured, though, that our entry into the larger life is just like Christ's, the firstborn of the new creation, of whom we are all little brothers and sisters. Life with Christ in eternity is a life that is not ruled by the linearity of our lives, a life that knows none of our sad limits. When it broke into our limited world, some adjustments were necessary—Joseph, for instance, had to make a big one. But stay tuned. There will be more.
Monday in Advent I
Lo! he comes, with clouds descending, Once for our salvation slain.
Charles Wesley (1707–1778), Hymn 57
* * *
Prior to the time of Jesus' earthly ministry, people loved to predict a dramatic ending to human history. Everybody was writing about it. Some of their writings survive in our Bible, in the Book of Daniel, for instance. The Messiah descending on clouds of glory was often part of it—armies streaming from the sky to finish off the oppressor and usher in the kingdom.
I know how they envisioned the clouds—not as the leaden clouds, portending snow or rain, that we see in the sky during winter, but as glorious clouds: clouds afire with the setting sun, shocking golds and pinks and silvers surrounding a scarlet orb just before it dips below the horizon for the night. Clouds look like fantastic mountains, like radiant and very solid cities. Their thick, billowy appearance makes it look like a few armies could easily stand upon them.
They look like that from a plane, too. I never tire of gazing at them when I fly, mile after mile through the white meadows. But the clouds I see as billows are far away; the clouds through which I am flying disappear as I pass through, revealed as nothing more than fog. All that majesty, all that apparent substance—it's only water vapor.
As it was, Jesus did not come on clouds at all. He came in poverty and some embarrassment, the child of poor parents who hadn't been married quite long enough. That's one of the reasons why so many people failed to recognize him: Most of the people who were alive when Jesus was did not think he was the Son of God. Most of them went on about their business as if nothing had happened.
You'd think that those who did recognize who he was would have known better, but they didn't: When they began to talk about his return at the end of time, they went right back to the clouds for inspiration. "Sure, he came in poverty and weakness this time," they told each other, "but just wait until he returns. You talk about clouds!"
In observing Jesus' first Advent, we prepare for the second one—that moment when everything will have been completed. "He will come again in glory," we say in our creed, "to judge both the living and the dead." Clouds? Armies? Is that what his glory will be like? The triumph of an ancient emperor, the grandiose power furniture of another age? Might not all that turn out to be nothing more than mist, once we are there? The first time around, nothing was as expected. What makes us think the second will be predictable?
Tuesday in Advent I
Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding: "Christ is nigh," it seems to say; "Cast away the works of darkness, O ye children of the day."
Latin, ca. 6th century; trans. Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1861, Hymn 59
* * *
Thrilling. By now, the stores have been festooned with tinsel and fake evergreen for what seems like forever, in a shopping season that began just after Halloween and has been old news for a while. I remember, though, when the secular preparation for Christmas was thrilling, or so it seemed to me. Thrilling, and a lot shorter, of course—but we were all much younger then.
At first, it seemed that the thrill could be bought. I was five, and every little girl in kindergarten wanted a Tiny Tears doll. It was said that she could cry real tears. She duly appeared under the tree on Christmas morning, smelling that wonderful new-doll smell that everyone who was a girl in the 1950s remembers. I was too little to grasp how the crying mechanism actually worked, though; I made a big mess with water in the bathroom sink, but Tiny Tears's plastic cheeks remained discouragingly dry. From too much washing, the shiny brown curls soon degenerated into unattractive, dull spikes, and a permanent gray smudge besmirched the end of her nose. I had little investment in Tiny Tears beyond her trumpeted crying skills, and I quickly lost interest in her. That was my first clue that creaturely thrills are ephemeral by nature.
Eventually, everything gets shopworn. Now, years later, my own hair is a little spiky, and parts of me don't work all that well. I have calculated that one-eighth of my husband's scalp is now exposed to the elements; I recently heard one of the grandchildren ask him what color his hair used to be. So we are shopworn, too. But that's the difference between people and toys: Those who love us don't base that love on our pretended perfections. Love renders us lovely. The glittery things that stores hope we will buy are all symbols of love, though they seem far removed from it—things we can give each other to show how much we care. The more expensive, the better is what the ads tell us. And yet, we know it is not so.
This time of year is all about love, and things are no substitute for it.
Wednesday in Advent I
Creator of the stars of night, your peoples everlasting light, O Christ, Redeemer of us all, we pray you hear us when we call.
Latin, 9th century; ver. Hymnal 1940, Hymn 60
* * *
I've lost track of the number of people who have told me something like, "I guess God is just too busy with important things to bother with my little troubles." Now, that's a kind gesture, letting the Almighty off the hook like that: God let my tragedy happen because he was just swamped with his important work. But is God really like that—one more overworked CEO?
What would it mean for God to "hear" us? Is a desirable outcome the only thing that would certify God's hearing in all our difficult situations? When we turn to God in desperation and then things don't go our way, does that mean God didn't hear? Or that he just didn't want to help?
I certainly don't know what makes things happen in this world, and I never met anybody else who did. But I do know what helps me in the midst of my great need. I need to know that my pain is not mine to carry all alone, and it helps me to know that God hears me, even if nothing in the situation changes for the better, or even if it gets a whole lot worse. From the people around me and from my God, I want the same thing: not magic, not an exemption from the realities of human history, but a loving understanding of what I'm going through. I don't really expect to be fixed. I just want to be heard.
The other side of being heard, though, is listening. After I've ranted and cried and told my truths, I can be still and listen. I can listen to the friend who has patiently listened to me; she may have a word that I need to hear, a word that helps my healing. And, if there is no one else around, if it is in silent prayer that I have cried out, I can be still and listen with my heart. Not with my mind—that's just the noise of me thinking. Just with my sore heart, all cried out. And God will speak. And my heart will hear.
Thursday in Advent I
"Sleepers, wake!" A voice astounds us, The shout of rampart guards surrounds us: "Awake, Jerusalem, arise!"
Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608); trans. Carl P. Daw, Jr. (B. 1944), Hymn 61
* * *
Sleep is the Holy Grail of middle age. We hit the ground running, swim upstream all day, cover all the bases all the time, leave home early, and get home late. Rocked to sleep by the motion of the late-night train, we are awakened by the conductors surprisingly soft tap on our shoulder, and we gather our things and stumble out into the night. "Coffee, anyone?" someone asks at dinner. We all look uncomfortably around at the other diners to see if anyone else is going to indulge. "I know I'm going to hate myself," we say, as the lovely dark brew fills our cups. "Just a half a cup," we say, "No, no more, that's enough!" We, who used to be able to stay up all night if we had to study for an exam, covet sleep, daydreaming in the afternoon about how good it will feel to lie down. "What time did you get in last night?" I ask my daughter. "Oh, I don't know, three or four o'clock, I guess," she says and I am appalled. But I notice that even she has just about stopped staying out late on work nights. Even my child is getting older.
In the morning I awaken before it is light. I open one eye to locate the lurid green numerals on the radio: four in the morning. I think of the work I might do if I were to get up now, the essay or two I might write, or the half hour I could do on the treadmill. Unfinished tasks at the church pluck at my sleeve; I could get up and do something about some of them, I suppose. But the bed is warm and soft; I pull the covers up to my chin and listen to my inert husband's regular breathing. Soon, my own becomes slow and soft, too, and sleep steals back over me. Just a little longer. All the things I have on my plate that need doing do not outweigh my longing for more sleep.
If Christ were to come now, to throw back the covers of my life, cuddled down in the comfortable predictability of its days, exposing me to the bracing air of a new day, it would be hard to respond gracefully at first. Not now. I'm sleep-deprived. But the sleep of the night is only for the sake of the day. God gives us the rest we need, and we need to take it. And then God astounds us with something new, and we awaken to it, refreshed.
Friday in Advent I
Zion hears the watchmen singing; her heart with joyful hope is springing, She wakes and hurries through the night.
Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608); trans. Carl P. Daw, Jr. (B. 1944), Hymn 61
* * *
No rendezvous is at too late of an hour or too inconvenient a place when one is in love. We sit through movies that bore us, football games we would never voluntarily attend, shopping trips to which we would never, left to our own devices, submit, and we enjoy these things immensely. We undertake huge tasks for love's sake—the moving of the beloved's furniture from a fifth-floor walk- up, the typing of the beloved's incomprehensible manuscript—and we count these things pleasures. We talk on the telephone together for hours; when we hang up, we ring right back: "There was something I forgot to tell you ..."
Zion, in this hymn, is pictured as a young woman whose lover is approaching. The people have longed for deliverance with the fervor that we all remember from our own experience of being in love, with the same totality, the same utter focus. And now it is here.
One thing that happens when people are in love, though, is that they idealize the beloved at first. Everything is perfect. It is this euphoria that makes us love to do things we don't really enjoy, simply because the one we love enjoys them. It renders idiosyncracies charming, the same ones that will soon enough become merely annoying. Later, we wish for that old feeling, that sweeping delight that makes everything bright because we are in love.
Sometimes people then separate. "We just don't have the same magic we used to have, you know?" they sadly say as they pack their things and turn their attention toward finding another magic person.
None of us retains our magical perfection forever. For a time, it makes us godlike in each other's eyes. But we are not godlike. We are unsuitable objects for worship. Only God can sustain it. Love changes when human beings are the ones doing the loving. Only God's love is constant. When human love grows and deepens, it mirrors this constancy. So love does not make us godlike. But love can make us more godly.
Saturday in Advent I
O let us not, for evil past, be driven from thy face at last, But with thy saints for evermore behold thee, love thee, and adore.
Latin, ca. 7th century; Trans. Hymnal 1982, Hymn 63
* * *
Did I do something to deserve this? People in hospitals sometimes have time on their hands, and they also often have a frightening situation that sometimes puts them in mind of their sins. However much they may know intellectually that it is not so, there is a part of them that wonders if their current state of ill health is not somehow related to some past misdeed. Am I being punished? And it's not just young, healthy people, laid low in their prime by some freak accident, who wonder about this; I've heard people well into their eighties wonder aloud what they have done to deserve a medical condition that any doctor would affirm to be just about what one might expect in old age.
It is common for human beings to separate from one another when one has offended; such estrangements can go on unmended for decades. "I don't want to see you anymore," one person says to another when a relationship is over. "They're not speaking," people say of another pair whose friendship has ended. It's natural that we should suppose, at first, that God is like us in this regard, shining the sun on us when we have behaved well and turning his back when we have not. We hear the people in Scripture articulating this calculus all the time: "So-and-so was king of Israel for this many years, then he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and he died," as if old king so-and-so might have gone on forever had he not offended.
This is not how it is. God is not less present to those who have sinned. God is, in fact, more available to them, since they have a specific need to experience the divine forgiveness. They are unreconciled; whether they know it or not, they are not at peace. Their prosperity or health is not the measure of God's presence any more than it is for anyone else. The good and the bad both know misfortune in life. God is simply present to all of us, whatever our state. It was not in its virtue that humankind's readiness for Christ lay; our readiness lay, as it continues to abide, in our need.
Second Sunday of Advent
Israel's strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art: Dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart
Charles Wesley (1707–1788), Hymn 66
* * *
When the more musical of the Wesley brothers penned this hymn, the British Empire was at the peak of its power and influence. Throughout the successive colonizations that marked its expansion, the British brought their culture everywhere they went. The people they found in the places they went looked primitive to them. They needed to be civilized. Part of becoming civilized was becoming a Christian. It was assumed that everyone should be one, and would want to be one once the obvious advantages were clear. Colonization and Christianization went hand in hand.
Excerpted from Let Every Heart Prepare by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. Copyright © 1998 Barbara Crafton. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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