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I can remember waking up on Christmas Day at the age of 6 or 7. I was almost always the first up—my parents were still in bed. Once I realized what day it was, I bolted upright and shot out of bed. I ran to the top of the stairs, and then down them as fast as I could. Once I hit the landing at the bottom of the stairs, I would begin to turn on my heel, since our Christmas tree was behind and to the right of the staircase.
As I took those last few steps, I felt a combination of powerful emotions: joy, expectation, curiosity. How many gifts would be under the tree? Would I get what I wanted? Would I get something I didn’t want? And I had other questions too, like: how did the presents get there—and who brought them? I think I can sum up this mix of emotions with the word wonder. As I sped down the stairs, I felt a deep sense of wonder.
As I grew up: 9, 10, 12, 13—that sense of wonder started to deflate and fade. As I got older, I got a little smarter, and I was soon able to predict what would be under the tree—and I also had a better sense of who put the gifts there. By the time I turned 18, that sense of wonder was totally absent. Christmas Day might be a nice day where I would get a good present, but it was otherwise like every other day of the year. Since then, as an adult, that wonder hasn’t really returned on other days. At the age of 6, wonder could strike at any moment; at the age of 36, I seem immune to it . . .
Today is the last Sunday of Advent. We have been waiting for this little child Jesus to arrive. And it’s striking that Jesus is a child, that God approaches us not as a fully-grown, powerful adult, but as this little, vulnerable infant. Jesus, of course, did grow up. But as he grew, unlike me, he seemed to remember that childlike wonder, because Jesus the adult teacher actually had quite a lot to say about children. In this, he was actually pretty unique for his day. Jesus lived at a time when children were seen more as potential human beings than as full humans in their own right.
Listen to what Jesus has to say about children. This is from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Mark: “it is to [children] that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. What does it mean to “receive the kingdom of God as a little child”? And what does it mean that the kingdom of God belongs to children? And what does it mean that God approaches us as a child?
This passage of Mark was the Gospel reading for our Thursday Noonday Eucharist in the first week of Advent [Dec. 6: The Feast of St. Nicholas], and I’ve been puzzling over it ever since. I have to say that, three weeks on, I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. The little bit of progress I have made, though, is this: I think that, whatever else it might mean, this instruction to be childlike must involve recapturing that sense of wonder that I used to have—and now seem to lack . . .
In Advent, we have hoped, we have expected, and we have waited. And I think we Christians are pretty sure we know what we are hoping for, who we are expecting, and why we have waited. And that makes sense, because as adults, we have been trained to go out into the world, gain knowledge, and make sense of things. We think we have it pretty well figured out. I think the reason my sense of wonder began to fade as I grew was because as our children approach adulthood, we send them to work and to school and we tell them to gain the skills, the knowledge, and the experience to master and control the world around them. So we adults are used to having things all figured out.
But I have to say that in Advent, I think God is up to something strange! God is doing something unexpected, unpredictable—maybe even a bit unwelcome. Just listen to Mary’s song from our Gospel passage today, the Magnificat [Luke 2:46-55]. What does she have to say about the rich, the full, and the powerful? She warns them: the rich will be made poor, the full will be hungry, the powerful will be humbled. But when these people heard that God was coming into the world, did they expect this? Did they look forward to losing? Is this what they hoped for?
I doubt it. But that’s what God was up to. We can expect and hope and plan and assume all we want—but God’s goals aren’t necessarily the ones we have. The Messiah brings God’s truth and love into the world. And for those who have resisted truth and love, that might not end up being so appealing . . .
Last Tuesday night [December 18, 2018], our new adjunct priest, Patricia Catalano, led an Advent reflection class on a poem by St. John of the Cross—San Juan de la Cruz. Some of you have probably heard of John, and some of you haven’t. But I bet everyone here has heard a phrase he made popular: the “dark night of the soul”. That’s become a pretty common phrase in English; we use it to describe times of difficulty, despair, loss, and trial. But in fact, the phrase that John used in Spanish translates as something more like “the obscure” night, or “the mysterious” night. And John goes on to say that it is in this obscure, mysterious time that God moves within us, that God is working.
So the dark night of the soul, for John, is not a bad thing at all—it’s a holy time. It is in this strange, unexpected, hard to predict time that God works. It is in this dark night that God is up to something strange!
What if in the darkness of winter, the darkness of this season of Advent, the darkness of a time when we worry about the future of our government, the darkness of this fragile and finite life—what if, instead of fearing or fleeing this darkness, we embraced it, and wondered in and through it?
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and by 10pm we will be acting like it’s Christmas Day. Tomorrow, knowing who Jesus was and is, we can celebrate with joy. But today, on this last Sunday of Advent, let’s lay down our knowledge and our expectations; let’s lay down our certainties—and our doubts. Let’s lay down that “god” who is only a projection of our own opinions and preferences. Let’s stand in this darkness, this uncertainty, this disquieting quiet and wonder who Jesus will be . . .
Mary’s song is often understood as a cry for social justice—and that’s absolutely right. But it’s important to note how she begins the song: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”. In this opening line, Mary is relishing the awe, the amazement, the wonder she feels at God’s presence. Even as an adult, she has retained this powerful emotion. Mary wonders what God is doing, she wonders what God is calling her to do, she wonders what this child will do as he grows up.
What might really be coming when God comes among us? When we have Emmanuel—”God with us”—what will that really be like? What is it that I had at six years of age—and I seem to lack so completely at thirty-six—that God is calling from me today?
To be honest, I really don’t know. But I wonder . . .