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Advent and the Faithfulness of God
Proper Advent observance is the subject of more than a little controversy. There are those who would have it be something of a "Lent Lite," and others who view it more like the "40 Days of Christmas." While Advent is a time of spiritual preparation, it is not a time for morbid introspection and pharisaical navel-gazing.
People are prone to extremes. This is no less true for followers of Jesus. We have a tendency to erect walls where God has built bridges. We find fault where God has strewn His favor. God has wedded His creation and His children together, but we are constantly trying to break up this sacred marriage. We would do well to remember the divine declaration, “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
But it just doesn't make sense to us. We can’t fathom how that which is spiritual can peacefully coexist with that which is material. The main reason this gives us fits is because we really don’t understand either of the two. We think that “spiritual” means “ethereal, abstract, and intangible” over against “material” which means “solid, concrete, and tangible.” This is simply to misunderstand the nature of the world which God has made. These strike us as opposites which are opposed to one another. But if they are opposed, they are only opposed the same way that your thumb and forefinger are opposed, and for precisely the same reason—so that you may be able to grasp things between them. Our joy will never be full until we are able to see the two, peacefully agreed, walking hand in hand.
God formed the world by His Word—it is thus a spiritual material. God also forms our worship through His Word—it is thus a material spirituality. In the former, He grants us life and gives the privilege of enjoying Him through the world and its stuff. In the latter, He grants us life and gives us the privilege of enjoying Him through His Word and its sacraments. Both are concrete. Both are tangible. Both are given for His ultimate glory and our everlasting joy.
The World, Stuff, and Lasting Pleasure
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God, and it will flame out like shook foil.” That is, the world is bursting with the glory of God—the perpetual overflow of His excellency. The majesty of God is only opaque to those who close their eyes and refuse to see it. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, His glory is displayed. Every morning, the sun rises from his slumbering place like a bridegroom leaving his chamber on his wedding day, rejoicing as a strong man to run a race. Each day, as he strolls across the solar system, he heralds his message of the glory of the Triune God. And everyone hears it. So the more we learn to see the sun, the more we learn to see the splendor of God. The same goes for daffodils and dark chocolate. The thicker the world becomes before our eyes and under our feet, the thinner the veil that hides God’s glory from our gaze.
The world really is translucent, and it is such by being really solid. If the world is that which enables us to see God’s glory, then those who try to help this process along by treating the world as ephemeral and wispy are making a grave error. The world does not need to be diluted to help God’s glory shine through. Do you glorify a jeweler by smashing his diamonds?
Focusing on the world as it is, without reference to Him, does not glorify Him. But seeing what He has done, the way He has done it, with matter packed tight, does glorify Him. This is why Christians shouldn’t attempt to climb up to the Beatific Vision by means of a material ladder in order to then kick the ladder away. The ladder is how we got there! We will always have bodies, and God will always speak to us in this way. Even in eternity we will have our senses. The only difference is that both they and the world will be infinitely enhanced. C.S. Lewis spoke of them being even more concrete.
This means that we should enjoy the Giver by enjoying His good gifts to us , and do so with gratitude. This is the essence of spirituality. We know this instinctively. We know the beauty of that first glimmer of sunshine breaking dawn in the east. We know the pleasure of feeling the warm sand between our toes as we stroll along the beach, while gulls overhead wing their way in flight, singing out their songs of praise. We know the blessedness of a grandmother’s gentle embrace and the integrity of a grandfather's handshake. We know the joy of a baby’s giggle and the humor of his first awkward steps. We know the thrill of wide-eyed wonder, the satisfaction of a hard day's labor, and the rejuvenation of a good night's sleep. We know the smell of frying bacon and brewing coffee. We know the potency of straight bourbon and the way a roaring fireplace fills up a cold room on a wintery night. We know the uproarious laughter of friends and the soft sting of their slaps on the back. We know the melody of Beethoven’s symphonies and the serene music of a puppy's snore. We know the way that a baseball fits neatly in our hands and the way that a hippopotamus doesn’t. We know the peace of God’s pardon. We know the hope of resurrection day. We know the love of God in Christ. We know that ultimately all of our lists utterly fail. And if we know anything at all, we know that we have a profound duty to say thank you to someone. Such is solid joy through the world, stuff, and lasting pleasure.
The Word, Sacraments, and Lasting Treasure
The things which we have learned about enjoying God through the world must not be forgotten when we gather to worship. Our joy is no less real when it comes to us through Word and Sacrament than it is when it comes to us through the world and stuff.
When we gather for worship we are gathering together in another dimension, another concrete dimension, created by the Word. And as we gather, we are reminded that we are there because at some point in the middle of history the Word that formed us put on skin and joined us in the world. The Incarnation is the greatest proof that no animosity exists between the material and the spiritual.
We gather in a Word-formed world. We gather in the name of the Word made flesh. We gather with others who are just as visible and tangible as we are in order to lay hold upon the intangible. We do this by rejoicing in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of our earthy, incarnate Lord.
Our joy is increased as we hold the Word in our hands, sing it with our lips, hear it in our ears, witness it in water, and taste it in bread and wine. Which is the material and which is the spiritual now? We have solid joy because, in gathered worship, we are able to grasp and cling to the Word present in our midst. We can take the promises of God, the very power of the world to come, and put them in our mouths and find them sweet to our taste. And all of this reminds us that the next world is even more real than this one. John Newton was right when he wrote those immortal words, “Solid joys and lasting treasures, none but Zion’s children know.”
God gives us a world and He grants us worship. We lift them up to Him in gratitude and He gets all the glory. But He turns right around and gives them back again for our unspeakable joy. Solid joy. Indestructible joy.
It is just this attitude that should be cultivated throughout the season of Advent. Joyful expectancy for the coming of our Lord as we wait in the light of his initial coming. As we think of it as a period preparation, let it be like the preparation before a wedding—full of laughter and nervous anticipation—rather than preparation for an execution. Even as we contemplate the sober reality of the coming, final judgment we do so with the settled conviction that the Judge has already been judged in our place.
So keep a keen eye on your Advent Calendar like one who is awaiting her nuptials. Eat your piece of chocolate week by week, enjoying the goodness of God poured abundantly on this good earth, knowing that a real feast is just around the corner.
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