Advent is represented by lighting four candles, before a fifth
is lit on Christmas day (© Traute Klasser / sxc.hu)
CHRISTMAS is celebration. Shopping. Decorations. Parties. Carols. But very few of us are aware that in the Christian calendar there are four Sundays that build up to the climax of Christmas day. These Sundays are called the “Advent”. The Advent is represented by the colour blue for the altar cloths in some churches and the lighting of four candles before a fifth is lit on Christmas. “Advent” means “coming” and in this context “the coming of God”. From the human point of view, we are “waiting” — waiting expectantly for the messiah who will free us from our selfish selves which have created havoc in the world.
For me, I felt it was important this year to wait reflectively as part of my preparation for Christmas. It is important to avoid getting swept away by festivities tinged with consumerism these days.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
Here was a lament from a people who had been exiled from their homeland and waiting to return home. Their centre of worship was crushed; the walls that once protected them crumbled to the ground. They were a people in exile where the glories of their past were no more. Worse still was when there was no future to dream of. Their securities in the promised land destroyed, their pride all gone, they were stuck in foreign soil, in Babylon.
Mural near the reconstructed Ishtar Gate, depicting the palace quarter of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon
(public domain / wikipedia.org)
Thus, they cry out for a warrior God above who is supposed to come and save them, just like he did in the times of the exodus from Egypt. They are now looking for a new exodus. A new liberation. A new experience of salvation. It was not so much about going to heaven, as most of us associate the word “salvation” with. It was about being freed from oppression and captivity to return home and rebuild their future.
Opportunities for understanding
God sometimes gives us an opportunity to understand what it means to be in exile — being in a state where one is cut off from his or her home, uncertain of the future. My encounter with a refugee in Malaysia and listening to his story gave me but a glimpse what being in exile feels like.
Where is he going to go? Who is going to help? Wouldn’t he pray the same kind of prayer? “Come down, Lord, rend the heavens and restore me back”? Isn’t this young man waiting too? For help? He is in exile because he is one who is “sinned against” by his home country and the circumstances that have led him here. For many of us we are in “exile” because of our own doing.
The prophet continues with these words:
You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
Hearing these words turns the spotlight from this young refugee to ourselves, and the way we have chosen how to live and relate to one another, resulting in the mess we land ourselves in. The targets of these words were held responsible because of their actions or inactions.
Matryoshka Santa dolls (© Craig Jewell / sxc.hu)
Prophets like Isaiah emerged during times of rampant injustice, empty rituals, worshipping foreign gods, judicial crises and bad governance. Prophets stood up and spoke out with courage before any words of comfort could ensue.
Instead of blaming God for their exile, Isaiah calls on the people to take responsibility for why they are stuck. The modern translation for these verses by American pastor, scholar, and poet Eugene Peterson has thrilling imagery:
We’ve sinned and kept at it so long!
Is there any hope for us? Can we be saved?
We’re all sin-infected, sin-contaminated.
Our best efforts are grease-stained rags.
We dry up like autumn leaves —
sin-dried, we’re blown off by the wind.
No one prays to you
or makes the effort to reach out to you
Because you’ve turned away from us,
left us to stew in our sins.
Let us take revelations of child sexual abuse in our communities. Our anger bubbles when we see the surrounding environment allowing for such monstrosity — sin-contaminated, sin-infected actions, evil actions — committed on children today. Our immediate reaction might be denial. Don’t talk about it. Distance yourself.
But are we part of this problem — often by our inaction — through the sin of omission?
The urgency of the matter hits home, when those close to us disclose that they or someone close to them are victims or survivors such abuse. How can we call ourselves progressive if the children who need our protection cannot feel safe?
The prayer from Isaiah fits us well.
Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord;
do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look on us, we pray,
for we are all your people.
Commitment to change
This season by now should have evolved into a season of repentance and a commitment to change our ways. Christmas celebrations can then be more meaningful. We can pray in this way because the prophet has guided us to an image of God beyond our warrior-God stereotype to a more intimate, deeper, life-changing picture of God.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Isaiah’s Lips Anointed with Fire by
(public domain / wikipedia.org)
This is a season he comes as the potter, to squeeze us, mould us, and do deep work in changing us, not just surface piecemeal solutions. This involves the shattering of our false conceptions of him, the practice of hypocritical religion or ideology, and false securities we build our lives on. In a world that is full of brokenness, and in need of healing, he has come to be the potter of this world. To reshape it into what it’s supposed to be.
And to do that the prophet Isaiah takes it even further, and proclaims that God is our Father. A long suffering Father who not only accepts us as we are, with all of our failures in following his ways, he offers us a second chance again and again.
Yet you, Lord, are our Father.
He refuses to allow us to remain as we are, stewed in sin, hardened by the stories of those being sinned against, or resorting to cynicism from the hard knocks along the way. God’s revelation of himself as potter and father turns our cries of despair to prayers of hope. We end up becoming not only the work of his hand but also the hands for his good work for the sake of a better world.
There is a Christmas carol that acts as the soundtrack for my Christmas journey thus far.
Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother;
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
A blessed Christmas to all.