Only a stub came out of one tattered sleeve. With his other arm, he beckoned wildly. “Help me. Help me.” The loud monotone cry repeated over and over without a moment’s pause. The clear pronunciation of the two English words rang out distinctly in a sea of foreign voices.
At Advent we are reminded, God is with us. He passes before us anew each day, in faces we do not recognize and in places we do not expect.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:
He comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor; as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. …It may strike us as strange to see Christ in such a near face, but He said it [Matthew 25:34-40].
Perhaps the holiday season makes this test all the more urgent and all the more challenging. The notorious Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner arguments rise up, those who are estranged or at a distance are suddenly more keenly missed, the absence of those who have passed on or the memory of past conflict is more sorely regretted.
And so we are pressed to acknowledge, not only that God is with us – in His Holy Spirit, in His intervention and intercession in our lives, and in the demands made by Him on behalf of others and the opportunity for His goodness to be shown through us. We also must admit, with a throb of the heart, that God is not with us – not completely, physically, or as tangibly as we hope and long for. While we sing of perfect peace on earth, we know painfully well that is not so; that grating truth at times causes the sweet carols swirling around our ears to sound as inharmonious as fingernails scraping on a chalkboard.
Amid the massive population, rampant poverty, and out of control corruption in India, a single beggar on the street – no matter how insistent or how desperate – is nothing to take notice of. And it is a well-known reality that anything given to the beggar’s pleas will not stop with him but will go to those who control and exploit him. His cry for help goes unmet.
That story is only one of millions upon millions, and not just in a foreign country where the immediate plight of so many who are all equally desperate makes it impossible to satisfactorily stage a rescue. Faced with the overwhelming reality of all that is wrong with the world, we are forced to walk by in silence. It is too much for us; it multiplies too quickly; it creeps up too slyly and slips under our radar. We cannot fix it all. We cannot be the savior.
But we have a Savior, who can fix all that we cannot. He has promised to bring the peace on the earth that we sing about and to wipe away every tear from our eyes. So we wait for Him.
That is what Advent is all about – a soul-deep agreement to the truth that He has come, that He is needed now, and that His promise is our sure and only hope. Thus, during the dark candlelit days of Advent, we rejoice and we mourn and we triumph as we eagerly expect His return.
Each evening, I light a candle, one added for each passing week of the four weeks of Advent; I open a new window on the Advent calendar as I count down the days to the bright celebration of Christmas, and I read the day’s selected readings for Advent. This year, it is God is in the Manger by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Time is Now by Amy Orr-Ewing (also on video), and liturgical readings from Scripture (Year A: Revised Common Lectionary).
Christmas will come, and we will lay aside our daily habit of quiet waiting for the lively festivities of that day. We will rejoice because we know what has already happened, and we know that what we wait for is coming; it is happening, and soon. And so we live differently, like people who know what they are waiting for – who have in fact found it and been changed by it.
Early on in the movie Risen, the tribune Clavius declares his mission in life: to find “a day without death.” After his encounter with the risen Yeshua and the disciples, he disarms an attacking soldier with the words, “No one dies today.” Clavius may still be waiting for the realization of what he hopes for to unfold, but at base level, he has found what he was searching for. His encounter with the Christ has unveiled to him the true appearance of a day without death, and that encounter has changed him already and everything about the way he thinks. He is living like life without death is real, even as his old world surrounds him.
In the face of all the unlovely and broken and destitute things in the world, we ache for them to be put right. But we live like people who have seen the face of Christ, who know His power, who have read the end of the story, who have the truth of His advent – every advent – seared into our souls.