A Rose of Redemption
You're probably familiar with the song, "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming"—if you're not, shame on you, it's wonderful. The text for the first two verses loosely come from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 11:
Lo, how a rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming
As prophets long have sung,
It came, a flowret bright
Amid the cold of winter,
When half-spent was the night.
Isaiah 'twas foretold it,
The rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind.
To show God's love aright,
She bore to us a Savior,
When half-spent was the night.
The chapter goes on to describe how the spirit of the Lord will rest on this shoot, this fruiting branch, how He shall gather His remnant in the final days, standing as an "ensign" (a signal or flag denoting a nationality) for the people, bringing a glorious deliverance and rest:
This flow'r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us
And lightens ev'ry load.
O Savior, child of Mary,
Who felt our human woe;
O Savior, King of glory,
Who dost our weakness know:
Bring us at length we pray
To the bright courts of heaven,
And to the endless day.
This song and chapter of the Bible have long been associated with the season of Advent. The word Advent is derived from Latin roots meaning "to come" or "to arrive", as described in Isaiah and the Psalms:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities. — Psalm 130
I didn’t grow up celebrating Advent. I came from a religious background that didn’t like to see Jesus portrayed as an infant. Not because they deemed it as violating the second commandment, but for the same reason they disliked seeing Him portrayed on the cross: they thought he should only be displayed in glory, power, and might. Never as weak, hurt, or needing help — yet, He chose to be born in the usual way, to spend the usual amount of time as an infant, requiring food and diaper changes. He chose to die in the most humiliating way, not to call the legions of angels, to experience the full spectrum of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain, un-benumbed.
These were concrete points in time and human history, in which He chose to participate. I’ve grown to think this should be embraced, not shied away from. Other religions (and even sects of Christianity) have attempted to divorce the spiritual from the physical, but we serve a God who made them inseparable in the person of Jesus. Advent celebrates this inseparability … by waiting.
In Due Time
Waiting has been described sometimes as women's work. This is mainly because it has to be done, there is no way around it and there is no shortcut, and so we do it. Activities such as pregnancy and childbearing further foster this idea. Scripture bears this out.
I flipped to 1 Samuel the other night and wept with Hannah. Hannah in her bitterness of soul, imploring the Lord for children. Hannah in the abundance of her complaint and grief, silently crying out. Hannah, who brings forth Samuel—"For this child I prayed"—gives him over to the priesthood, in fulfillment of the vow she made before God.
Ruth lost her husband and her husband's family (her entire system of protection) after already leaving her own family. And in this midst of this loss, she faithfully cares for her mother-in-law, in a land where she’s a stranger. She labors diligently and waits, remarries, and in time brings forth Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David. David, the youngest son, the one out with the sheep, whom Samuel—yes, Hannah's Samuel—anoints at the Lord's command:
"Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah."—Matthew 1:17
When we turn to the New Testament (Luke 1), Elizabeth wasn't even waiting anymore. She and Zechariah were a couple who had dealt with infertility and loss, and had presumably laid this grief and struggle down as they approached old age. She is given a miraculous (what specialists would now term "geriatric") and healthy pregnancy. It is her husband who is struck temporarily dumb, as a result of his lack of faith that these events can take place. The angel Gabriel has commanded that the child be named John, the family objects that this is not a family name, a tablet is fetched and Zechariah, speechless for 9 months, writes upon it "His name is John," and his speech is restored. By the way, is this ringing any Genesis 17 bells for you? Because it ought to be. God appears to be in the business of miracles. Strange how that happens.
A young Mary is promised to Joseph, potentially not meant to be "married" for some time, when the angel appears to her to announce her pregnancy: like most angels in Scripture, such a frightening sight that among the first words they tend to speak are "be not afraid." Pregnant with true God and true man, she goes to spend the first three months of her confinement with her elderly cousin Elizabeth, and the child in Elizabeth's womb leaps at the presence of Christ—John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, his elder by 6 months. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Ghost. John is filled with the Holy Ghost. And it is this same John who cries in the wilderness:
"This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” (John 1:15)
John Donne's "Annunciation" puts it thus:
Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which alwayes is All every where,
Which cannot sinne, and yet all sinnes must beare,
Which cannot die, yet cannot chuse but die,
Loe, faithfull Virgin, yeelds himselfe to lye
In prison, in thy wombe; and though he there
Can take no sinne, nor thou give, yet he'will weare
Taken from thence, flesh, which deaths force may trie.
Ere by the spheares time was created, thou
Wast in his minde, who is thy Sonne, and Brother;
Whom thou conceiv'st, conceiv'd; yea thou art now
Thy Makers maker, and thy Fathers mother;
Thou'hast light in darke; and shutst in little roome,
Immensity cloystered in thy deare wombe.
I have been struck by the reminder that this baby called the "Prince of Peace" was born into a land stained by centuries of brutal war and bloodshed. It's easy enough to read the Old Testament and the New and allow yourself to think that times had changed, or that the history was somewhat removed ... nope. This was still fresh for them. The generations were countable. And it feels fresh now, in a news cycle where nearly every day brings reports of shootings and bombings. We long for rest and peace.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
(excerpt from T.S. Eliot's "East Coker")
I find myself, at the time of this writing, plunged into a seasonally appropriate bleakness of spirit: the longing and heartache produced by "the now and the not-yet" has never been stronger. Yet we rejoice in the midst of that tension, because we are not left alone, we are not left on our own. The deliverance is at hand, if not temporally, eternally. My pastor reminds us frequently that God is a good storyteller. The story is not over; it is simultaneously already written and being written. God is not bound by our constraints of time, after all, with Him, "a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day" (2 Pet. 3:8). What we experience here and now is nothing in the grand scheme of eternity.
We wait. God is at work.
There is no more fitting way to wrap this up than with Aaron Everingham's "Adventu," originally published on his site in Advent 2013:
Forgive the land it is barren and demoralized
it is inverted and crucified like St. Peter
but in shape and form only
for St. Peter was anything but hopeless
Forgive the forgeries that are scratched in the dust
by the shiny little onyx beaks of bastard crows
who die in the wind which lifts from the wasteland
hurling them against the side of the huntsman’s brow
Forgive the behemoth beholden to Job
when from the midst of the whirlwind the Lord
Forgive the dry vessels whose parched clay hips
are inscribed with insurrection
as thirty gallons of emptiness proclaim
the inauguration of the Kingdom
Await we now in silent wonder
with ears once deaf now open
and eyeballs once cast in molten lead
now full of light
receiving forgiveness and the
bleeding heart to forgive which is
by this taught wire strung across
the loom between two holy Advents:
one which the Temple
passed through a womb, a feeding trough
a cross and a stone
and one we await in prayerful anticipation
while in the now and not yet
we, the drowned, are succored by the breath
of the Lord