We are used to the imagery of God communicating by God’s word, and so think of our responses to God as aural: listening, and obedience (from ob-audiens – intense hearing). Yet how much of the religion of Ancient Israel was a priestly religion of Presence! We forget that one of the central images of God’s communication in the Scriptures is that of the Shining face. From the Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6 to the continuous references in the Psalms, it is expected that worshippers will see the radiance of God’s face, and in its light, they too will shine.
With each Sunday of Advent, it is as though the Spirit brings us deeper into the Presence by bringing us closer to having our feet on the ground, closer to the present, and closer to our own hearts. The divine Heart Surgeon is reconfiguring our desires so that we can inhabit both the Presence and the present. How else can we be made alive? This means learning how to long, how to hope and how to be vulnerable to failure. There is no coming without traveling this route. If we cannot be taken to the end of ourselves, stretched beyond our capacity to imagine a salvation, and have our longing forged against the hard anvil of apparent impossibility, then we are still wanting something that is a continuation of our selves, and not the Other who is coming in.
One of the things I love about the liturgical life of the church is the way that the Holy Spirit, quietly and gently, works on us. Through the texts and prayers set out each year in the lectionary the Spirit draws us ever more fully into the Presence. If we read the texts in a literalistic manner, it can sound as though week by week it is God who is undergoing change toward us. In fact, however, in the liturgy of the Presence it is we who are worked on through the scriptures and the prayers, we who get to be reconfigured and brought into the life of the changeless One.
At Advent, it begins again: the cycle by which God breaks through the clutter of our lives to announce to us that the Presence is very near, irrupting into our midst, hauling us out of our myths, our half-truths and the ways we have settled for what is religious rather than what is holy, alive and real. So lest we be tempted to think that Advent is merely a religious warm-up for Christmas, let us see if we can allow ourselves to be brought near the cold-water spigot whose splashes can chasten us into reality.
We are on the very brink of the nativity. Our sense of the power of the One coming in has been stretched, challenged and recast over the past three weeks. Now the reality of that power begins to dawn more clearly, and what is astonishing about it is that, unlike any power we know, this power is confident enough to be vulnerable. And that means confident enough in us to be vulnerable to us.