If there is one word which most of us would like to significantly reduce from our usage, it must be “like.” I used it twice in that opening sentence.
This word would relegate our lives to simile; serving as a membrane between our sensory and spiritual participation in a textured existence. It may reduce chaffing, but it also blunts our humanness. Our lives were never intended to be similes. It’s like we feel this each time we say like. (The word simile actually means similar, or like.)
Yet Advent presents us with the ineffable—that which cannot be worded. Its the prophets who got most dumbfounded: thrones like jasper, skin like blazing amber, lakes like crystal. Theologians call these beatific or “blessed” visions—visio beatifica—and they inarticulate (v.) us all. Maybe we use like so much because we’ve forgotten how to be speechless?
One can only imagine a rambunctious crew of shepherds cavorting down the dark streets of Bethlehem, hooting and hollering and carrying on about legions of angels and a swaddled baby in a barn or something. Their words amazed many. “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” This was no simile to Mary. This life had grown in her womb and been nourished from her body. She had felt the contractions and pushed the child out into the world. She had few words. Mary mostly had wonder.
Wonder is the virtue of Advent. Language escapes us, and we become mute like Zechariah—or ought to be! You can detect a hint of irritation in the archangel’s voice as he chastens the elderly priest on account of his demand for details. Maybe more than a hint:
I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place.
Advent insists upon wonder, and rightly so.
Sociologists use an evocative term for the secularization of Western societies: disenchantment. It is glibly heralded that modern societies produce individuals who can make sense of the world without the help of supernatural explanations. (Thank you very much!) That is precisely the point: disenchantment is the offspring of supernatural explanations, or, more accurately, the need to explain the supernatural. Søren Kierkegaard was bemoaning this before any sociologists got going.
The church, so bent on explaining,
. . . is not satisfied with faith and not even with the miracle of changing water into wine—they’ve progressed to changing wine into water.
Wine into water! As the old ad cautioned, “Too much progress spoils the Progresso.” Too many explanations spoil the Advent.
I was talking to a friend the other day about her faith journey. Turns out there was a pivotal point during which a mutual friend observed something profound, “Would you really want to worship a God you could totally understand?” That was an epiphany to my friend. Though the question was basically rhetorical, she found herself thinking, No. No! Of course not!
This is the Advent epiphany and wonder is its truest trait.
Of course the Western church celebrates a feast called epiphany (the Irish call it “Little Christmas”) and it is a commemoration of the Magi’s visit. These ancient eastern astrologer-nobles knew so little and yet they knew better than all religious establishment of Jerusalem. “Where is the one who was born to be king? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Oddly, the scribes supply the GPS coordinates, but remain behind—not to be bothered, I suppose. These wise and wonderful and mysterious Magi were off lickety-split: O come let us adore him! O come let us adore him! O come let us adore him!
When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts. . .
You know the rest. What was their deal? How did they know to do this? What happened next? We’re not told. We just know that the angel warned them to circumnavigate the disenchanted on their way home, which they shrewdly did. (King Herod called it trickery. It surely was sleight of hand.)
During the climax of CS Lewis’s The Last Battle—the final chronicle of Narnia; and, yes, I’m going to spoil it now—all those who maintain fidelity to the real Aslan are being rounded up and heaved into a stable to be killed. However, upon entering the small structure, they find that it opens into a whole world; a world that is infinitely larger than the entirety of Narnia outside its confines. This is perplexing, and it’s the wondrous Lucy who finds a parallel:
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”
Advent is bigger than the worlds of our words.
But it is actually an anti-simile. The membrane ruptures quite actually as the breaking of water. The beatific vision is a baby, the skin is supple and new, the throne is crunchy hay—the sounds and smells are of this world. This is not a simile but a metaphor—a “carrying over”—the divine introduction of Self into our fleshly familiarity. We are not rendered speechless by God’s remoteness but by his nearness.
It is, after all, the Word become flesh. Every simile we could dream to use and an infinite array of others all batched into this act of self-disclosure. God’s articulating of Self into human life—”unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.”
We do well to treasure this quietly. It is less in need of explanation or interrogation than contemplation: let it rattle around in your heart and soul and mind. Feel your flesh and know God dwelt in it: that scent, that sound, that pleasure, that pain, that blemish, that ache; the God of Advent inhabited every bit of it.
It is by Advent wonder that we become impregnated by God’s Word. It becomes in us a metaphor; the divine life carried over into our own. And we, too, become a metaphor as it lives itself out in our flesh. St. Francis once said, “Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” Surely there are many necessary words, but Advent reminds us that wordless wonder can be necessary also; that a wordless baby can be all the message we need to receive.
Advent wonder might even convert our wine, now become water, once again into wine. I hope it does!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him!
O come, let us adore Him!
O come, let us adore Him!