“And it came to pass that in those days…”
So begins the story of Advent, the story of Christmas—the story with which most of us are familiar. We know the map, we can trace the journey from the Holy of Holies where Zachariah met an angel and was struck him dumb for his unbelief to the stable where the Christ child was born among common farm animals, dirt, and hay.
We know the familiar stops along the way—
Mary’s room in which another angel appeared, met this time by surrender and acceptance: “May it be unto me as you have said.” Mary whispered with trembling.
The dusty yard outside Elizabeth’s home where Elizabeth was filled not only with a long-awaited and beyond hoped-for baby, but with the Holy Spirit and an exclamation of promise: “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
A pallet on the floor where Joseph tosses and turns in his sleep, wrestling with plans and possibilities to dismantle his dreams of life with Mary in an honorable way that would protect her as much as possible yet free him from obligation if not from love and disappointment. Tosses and turns until his dream is interrupted by yet another angel who confirms what Mary had told him, that she was innocent, had not wronged him: “Believe me, Joseph,” pleaded Mary. “Believe me, Joseph,” commanded the angel of the Lord.
The long journey by donkey, step by labored step to Bethlehem. An arrival to crowded, jostling, loud streets where Joseph searched for a room and was told again and again: “There’s no room for you here.”
And finally, the stable. Angels. Shepherds. Stars and wise men and a murderous king.
The month of December is a familiar journey we can trace as well—a journey from first to thirty-first at break-neck speed, its days filled with shopping and planning and baking and parties and wrapping and trimming. The Christmas story and its familiar scenes blur in its hurried wake.
But Advent is not measured by calendar days. Advent is a season of preparation that transcends hours and minutes and appointments and lists. In Advent, we prepare for the coming as we choose to slow our pace rather than hurry. As we pause rather than rush. As we savor rather than devour. We slow and wait for the Lord’s coming—looking back to that first coming in the loneliness of a stable and looking forward to the last coming at the last trumpet in the gathering of saints.
God became flesh. Immanuel—God with us. This is Advent. He came and he is here now and he is coming again.
In the Christmas story, we see that God became more than observer, trying on our skin, feeling our joy and our pain, experiencing hunger and exhaustion, the cool splash of raindrops on a summer afternoon, the tickle of snowflakes on a cold winter’s night.
In the Christmas story, in the preparation of Advent we too have the opportunity to become more than mere observers. Though the days of December may rush past, we have the choice to pause, to stop the story and step into the familiar and find something fresh and new and compelling.
God invites us to participate in this story, in his story—not just to observe it—
We are invited to try on Zachariah’s frozen lips and discover that our words really do come from what we store up in our hearts. To wonder at nine long months of silence, thoughts, ideas, and prayers hoarded like pennies until what bursts forth at John’s birth is a fortune of praise: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has saved us and set us free, who enables us to serve him without fear!”
We are invited to feel Elizabeth’s swelling belly, stretched and firm, tight evidence that though we may stop praying for something we’ve longed for, yearned for, pleaded for for most of a lifetime until hope and probability dies—God does not forget. God remembers our prayers when we have long let them die, buried them, forgotten them save for the occasional memory.
We are invited to make Mary’s daily choice to remember the whisper of the angel of the Lord telling her she is indeed blessed rather than the ugly whispers behind hands that stilled and then pointed wherever she went.
We are invited to wonder and imagine and see ourselves in Mary’s mother, Joseph’s father, Zachariah’s priestly friends; in the travelers along the road to Bethlehem, the innkeeper, the shepherds, and the wisemen; in Herod’s advisors; in the women of Bethlehem who lost their own sons in the bloody violence of death as God gave up his in the bloody violence of birth.
The best stories—the ones we love and tell and are changed by—are those we enter actively rather than sit passively and observe. Those in which we are caught up, pulled into, plunged into, experience as our own.
The best stories are those that never end. And the story of Christmas is indeed a true never-ending story.
For Advent begins the story that began before the beginning and continues past the Cross on a hill pointing to heaven and the empty tomb in a still garden and the dancing flames of the Holy Spirit, past yesterday and today, and looks ever ahead to the Advent—the coming—of the Second Coming and the promise of forever and ever and ever.
The Spirit says, “Come.” Enter the story. And in doing so, we say: “Amen.” May it be unto me as you have said. “Come, Lord Jesus.” Then and now and again soon.