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In the gospels of Mark and John, we do not meet Jesus until he is presenting himself for baptism in the River Jordan, when he is some 30 years old. In those gospels, the first and last to be written, Jesus arrives on the scene fully formed, kind of like Adam and Eve in the creation stories. No idyllic childhoods for them: They are created as mature adults, fully capable of messing things up in no time at all.
What would Christmas be without the gospels of Matthew and Luke, without their accounts of angelic visitations and parents-to-be struggling to understand the ways of God? What would Christmas Eve be without the donkey, the innkeeper, the confused shepherds, the singing angels, and the smelly beasts?
Is there anything more shocking, more radical, more hard-to-believe and yet more real than God incarnate in a newborn baby, so tiny and wrinkled and beautiful, so utterly dependent, so busy with eating and pooping and sleeping and crying and coming alive in the great big world outside the womb? Who among us cannot love that God? Who doesn’t want to hold him, to smell him, to lie awake listening for the slightest sound, to tiptoe over to his crib again and again to make sure he’s still breathing?
Thank God for Baby Jesus. Thank God for a Jesus so easy to love. Thank God for a savior that comes to us naked and poor, powerless and vulnerable, needy and hungry. Thank God for Advent traditions that prepare us to watch for and receive God being born again in our lives and in the world. Thank God for Christmas Eve and all the joy and wonder that comes with celebrating the arrival of our God With Us, Love Made Flesh.
We know full well that babies grow up, that they will have tantrums and throw fits, even before their teenage years. We know they will become their own persons, that we will have to give them room to grow and discover who they are. We know they will not always do what we want and we will not always know who they are. We know that, as much as we want to, we will not always be able to protect them; we surely can’t control them; that sometimes they will annoy us to no end; that life will happen to them with all its wonder and heartbreak.
And yet we have a tendency to leave Jesus in the manger, all cuddly and cute, all adorable and non-threatening. He is so much easier to relate to and control than the grown-up who doesn’t get a real job, the iconoclast who ruffles feathers and challenges traditional ways of thinking, the lover and troublemaker who calls us to follow him on the way to a cross.
And yet it is our loss if we leave Jesus in the manger. It is our loss if we do not wrestle with our ideas of God and let them evolve. It is our loss if we fail to see Christ in our midst, if we do not make room for the challenging, healing, grown-up lover God to come into our world, into our ways of thinking, into our daily lives and relationships.
How sad life would be, how sad it becomes, if and when we accept the greatest lie of all: that the way things are is the only way they can be.
So thank God for Advent, which calls us to wake up and watch for the workings of Love in the world. Thank God for Advent, which reminds us that something new is coming, that something different is possible, that unhealthy patterns can be changed, that vicious cycles can be broken. Thank God for Advent, which reminds us that we need to prepare the way for this healing newness, that we need to open our hearts and minds, that we must make room for things to be different.
Thank God for proclamations of prophets and the wild ravings of John the Baptist, pointing out that if our Deliver is to come, there are rough and uneven places in us and in our world that need to be smoothed out, there are high and mighty things and people and attitudes that need to be brought low, there are oppressed and hurting people and places within us that need to be raised up and healed and loved. Isaiah and John the Baptist suggest that this preparing the way will involve more than simply freshening up the guest room; this preparation project is likely to involve wrecking balls and dynamite, bulldozers and sledgehammers, entirely new floor plans and imaginings.
And to get there, to prepare the way, to be willing to sign off on this holy renovation project, we must trust that it is possible. Nelson Mandela said we “cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.” It may be that believing and trusting and hoping in the possibility of change is the hardest part—especially when it comes to relationships, especially when patterns seem set in stone, especially when the hurt runs deep and it feels unsafe to open our hearts again, especially when the trust just isn’t there, especially when things are so far gone and it is easier and sometimes feels healthier just to write someone off than to try again to make things better.
But Advent invites us to consider that newness is possible. And the grown-up Jesus shows us the way.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear some of those words of Psalm 85—Will you be angry with me forever?—I think not primarily of God but of certain people, of particular relationships that I have known or have even been in. Will your hostility never cease? Can you ever forgive me? Can I ever forgive you? Speak tenderly to me. Can we try this again? Could we start over? Please?
Take a moment to think about the difficult relationships in your life, the places of recurring pain and disappointment, the unhealthy patterns, and seemingly never-changing cycles of hurtful behavior. Acknowledge the ways in which you have shut down your heart, given up, closed the door, and walked away. Without putting yourself in harm’s way, consider what a new way of relating would look like. Before you begin counting all the reasons why it could never happen, ask yourself how you could open the door, how you might prepare the way, what steps you could take to something new, something different, something healthier and better.
How can we create a meeting place within ourselves for love and faithfulness? How can we make space in our relationships for mercy and truth? How can we make room in our world for justice and peace? How can we become agents of transformation—not only in the world but also in our own lives? How can we prepare the way for healing?
Advent reminds us that there is, as Walter Brueggemann says, “a new possibility now among us, rooted in God’s love and God’s suffering power. Power from God’s love breaks the vicious cycles. We have seen them broken in Jesus, and occasionally we have seen them broken in our own lives. It is promised that the cycles can be broken, disarmament will happen, and life can be different. It is promised, and it is coming, in God’s good time.” 1
Advent is about trusting that this time will come; Advent is about waiting and watching for it. But it is not a passive waiting. Advent is about preparing the way, getting ready for transformation. Advent is about inviting Jesus—not the sweet baby, but the challenging grown-up—into our lives and into our relationships.
What would that mean? What would that look like?
A little more truth-telling, perhaps. A lot more tenderness. More looking upon each other through the eyes of our merciful, compassionate God. More awareness that the other’s behavior has more to do with them than with us. Less judgment and more empathy. Some risk-taking. More effort to understand. A willingness to endure some pain and even death on the way to healing and the possibility of a new beginning. The commitment to love one another even when it’s not easy. The acceptance that we cannot control what will happen, we cannot know what things will look like—and a decision to do what we can, to open our hearts and prepare the way for we know not what. A radical trust, not in ourselves or the other but in the God who is always doing a new thing.
To invite Jesus into our relationships means to pray about them: To pray for the person we have trouble with. To pray for what seems impossible, and for the grace to accept what comes. To pray more that we will be changed than that the situation or the other person will be changed. To pray to be more like Jesus.
Baby Jesus was born into the very Source of Love, the Love that holds and heals all things. And so were you; so were we all. Grown-up Jesus was rooted in that Love, grounded in that holy connection, guided in all things by his union with the Divine. And so we can be, too. That is the invitation of Advent. That is the call of Jesus.
Come, Lord Jesus: into our relationships!