Have you ever gotten in your car and found yourself on either I-95 or I-64 driving to a certain destination—say a meeting or running errands—and you wanted to just keep going? Driving to see where you would end up, perhaps escaping your life for at least for a day or two? I’ve experienced that temptation—the lure of the open road. I don’t know about you but I do my best thinking in the car, driving alone that is. It’s so freeing to be in the car with one’s own music, one’s own thoughts.
This past Sunday I left church and hit the road for Asheville, N.C. I had the privilege of attending an Advent retreat with two of my favorite spiritual gurus: John Philip Newell, the Celtic theologian, and Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and writer who is known as one of the best preachers in the church. These two are rock stars in my book and worthy of the adulation.
Here’s the other fantastic thing about my seven-hour drive: I overdosed on Advent and Christmas carols, so much so that by the time I got to Greensboro I had to get out of the car and shake it off. It was too much even for me. You see, if Andrew had been with me nary a carol would have been heard. No ma’am. He’s a Scrooge when it comes to treacly carols. I especially love driving around at Christmastime. The lights glowing in the night are beacons of glad tidings. Ah, and the tackier the better. They feed my soul.
Last week in Children’s Chapel Mark Whitmire asked the kids what word reminded them of Advent, a word similar in meaning and structure, a word loaded with anticipation? One child knew the answer: adventure. Think about it! There is no better way to understand each one as they both share the element of expectation. And no adventure is worth anything unless it is fraught with excitement and risk. On my drive I thought a great deal about the four-week adventure we’re on and what it means for us as we anticipate the birth of the Christ Child. Are there labor pains along the road for us? Are there obstacles that need to be cleared from our paths?
To answer these questions it might be helpful to first place the season of Advent into the context of our lives before discerning its theological implications. I find that during Advent our emotions are heightened to the point that they are often laid bare and vulnerable. We are either joyful or grieving in some profound way. December is often a reprieve from our mundane lives. We have an expectation of happiness and decency. It marks a time of parties, reunions, vacations, frivolity, gift-giving, generosity, nativities, Christmas pageants, and spiked eggnog, typically all life-affirming things. But this time of the year is also pockmarked by hardship, sickness, and darkness. A true recession and its aftermath seem a cruel hand to be dealt to families right before the holidays, and even worse is reconciling oneself to the randomness of death and tragedy when they strike during Advent. My own mother died in December so I hurt for anyone who feels despair and loneliness when life goes on for everyone else as if nothing ever happened. Advent is a time of distilled emotions. If there ever was a time when all should be right with the world it should be now.
In the winter nakedness of the interstate highways 85 and 40 leading me to mountains of North Carolina I searched for John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness. Do you know what I heard? I could almost make out his lament through the drone of the tires pressing down on the road: “Make straight the way of the Lord!” He was imploring me to prepare the way of the Lord as I repent the blindness and stubbornness of my heart. The capacity of the human heart for idolatry and control is astounding. Make straight the way of the Lord. Through the plaint of repentance one finds healing from the infection that wounds the heart and obstructs the birthing of Christ’s arrival.
Philip Newell talked about this healing in terms of wisdom and ignorance. He said when we look deeply into our true selves it is wisdom that resides in the caverns of one’s soul, not ignorance. Ignorance lies in shallow places easily expunged. Newell teaches that we are created not only in the image of God—not simply made by God—but that we come from the womb of God and therefore are made of God. Thus the passion and wisdom of God lies deeper than anything that is wrong or violent or shameful within us. It is in our healing, our making amends, that we reclaim our holy matter and can then be attentive to the signs of God’s presence within us and around us as our eyes have been opened and our perceptions cleansed.
In the winter nakedness of the interstate highways 85 and 40 I searched for John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness. Do you know what I saw? What I took notice of with a heavy heart? The roadside memorials of car accident crash sites. I’ve always been haunted by them—these shrines to death and tragedy. This time of the year accentuates the crosses as the winter landscape is stark, the trees and shrubbery bare. The staked crosses planted as gravestones stick out as a warning or perhaps it is the voices of their loved ones who we hear crying out in the wilderness: “This is the spot where my child died—where death snatched my beloved. You, too, should know my pain.” In some ways these memorials are unnatural; they seem out of place on a random stretch of road, exposed to the elements and countless throngs of vehicles that pass by indifferent to them. I’ve never really known how I should react to them. I can’t ignore them. Often I’ll say a prayer if I can make out a name. The other day I noticed a new memorial on a median on a stretch of Monument Avenue. It left me with a knot in my stomach. I drove by it again Friday and stopped the car and got out to see if there was a name of the person who died—I thought I could at least pray the knot out of my stomach. There was no name just two pictures stapled to a tree of a handsome young man in the prime of his life.
When we wait as we do for the birth of the baby Jesus, we must not overlook the uncomfortable signs of Christ’s presence already among us. Somehow we miss the whole point if we are not a part of the sacrament of God’s love broken and shed in the very midst of the woundedness of humanity, especially that which may appear out of place and unnatural to us. If anything, it should be comforting to know that at that moment, at that exact spot, Christ was and is still there.
Philip Newell also spoke of the lost fragments of the Secret Book of John, John the Beloved Disciple who went on to settle in Asia Minor. He quoted John who wrote about his own motif of tears and how the presence of Christ was revealed most fully through his tears; tears that wash the inner lens of one’s heart to reveal truth. It is through these tears that one can visualize the diamond essence glistening in the hearts of those whom we have lost and those of whom we seek. So you see, the cross of Christ unveiled by tears, beckons to us. What I’ve learned this Advent is there is nothing unnatural about a cross anywhere in the sanctuary of God’s creation.
Those, like John, who cry out in the wilderness of the naked season do not cry for the sake of crying or for the sake of the voice. Almost nothing gets born without pain and fear. They cry for blessing and salvation. They summon us to ward off the shifting rocks and sand that threaten to bury us, just as our Lord Christ commands us to prepare his way in the winter wastelands—to clear away the rubble and make paths smooth again.
The reality of hope and wholeness has been given to us in faith, and we can begin to spread this in the world by our own presence and by the suffering that we are willing to bear on behalf of the world. As Christians we are sign-bearers of the presence of the God, both by our personal involvement in the works of mercy and love, and by our attitude toward life and relationships. It was Frederick Buechner who said, “It is no wonder that just the touch of another human being at a dark time can be enough to save the day.” Even in the darkness God brings forth new life and takes on flesh. As Advent Christians we allow Christ to return and be reborn with almost no recollection that he was born last year and all the years before. The face of the newborn child—the face of God—is deepest in every human being. May we pray it be reborn in us this Advent. Let our crying voices ring out; let our tears flow luminously with hope for a new day.