Last Sunday the celebration of the First Sunday of Advent at my church coincided, and dare I say clashed, with a decades-old tradition of celebrating Scottish heritage on the Sunday nearest the feast of St. Andrew on 30 November. There was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in singing “Sleepers, Wake” and then later hearing the bagpipes play “Scotland the Brave”.
This morning I went to the 8:30 Communion in search of a quieter, more centered experience. A young couple arrived slightly late, with their little boy. I am terrible at guessing ages, but I would say he was no older than two, big enough to be dressed in a shirt and pants and little slippers, small enough to be kept in arms. He made a lot of noise during the service–a joyful noise, as it says in the psalms, burbling, babbling, and exuberant shouts, accompanied by cheerful smiles across the aisle at me and Kermit-like waving of the arms. Yet he did nothing to disturb the quietness I was seeking. All his noises were happy noises, sounds that celebrated life. He was not crying for attention, seeking relief for pain, crying and being ignored. I don’t think anyone wanted to complain of his presence.
Advent is a lot like that, generally. It is full of contradictions. You want quiet and you get a shouting baby, but there is quietness at the heart of his joy. You look for the Kingdom, and it is not here yet, but it is coming; it is near at hand; it might even be within you. We cannot bring in the Kingdom ourselves; we cannot put everything to rights, we cannot restore the good order of creation which we have helped to muddle and befoul. Yet we can and must prepare the way, levelling mountains, raising valleys, and making a highway for the One who can restore, recreate, and not merely repair this broken world.
I had the inspiration this evening to look online for a Deesis icon. I have been saving icons and holy images to my hard drive and pulling up a different one each day to contemplate while saying the Office. The Deesis is a very old style of icon, from the Byzantine era; it shows Christ as Ruler, holding a book, his hand raised in blessing, flanked by his Mother on one side and John the Baptist on the other, their hands raised in supplication.
The Baptist and the Virgin Mother are the two great figures or characters of Advent, and they are very nearly opposites. The Baptist calls on us to repent; he points to the end of all things, the coming of the Lord in judgment, the need to renounce all that holds us back from God. The Virgin Mother is, in herself, a contradiction, a paradox, the untouched bearer of a mysterious new life, the carrier of a coming which will be in silence and humility rather than wrath and judgment. Like any pregnant woman, her very being is an affirmation that life goes forward and there is hope.
Today we had snow, unusual in December in these parts. With the icy rain that followed, the city may be closed down tomorrow, and I’ll be home. But the tulip magnolia outside my windows, growing in the walled garden across the alley, has already budded, as tulip magnolias do. All the snow of December, January, February, will not keep it from blooming in April; its buds are prepared to wait through the vicissitudes of winter. I will wait, too, and put on my boots if I have to walk to work.