I go into Advent empty. Normally I enjoy taking apart cultural constructions and showing the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, as it were. It turns out the same is true of me. Solid ground and certainties seem to bend in the wind, or disappear entirely. The brazenness of ambition has crumpled. Pretences at autonomy look ridiculous. I overestimated the manipulability of life; I underestimated its rawness.
You can tell as much by the objects of my envy. A long-time melancholic, when I was little, one of my favourite stories in our book of fairytales was The Little Match Girl. She is out on a winter’s night desperately trying to sell matches to no avail, and too afraid to go home empty-handed. To try to keep herself warm, she lights her matches one by one, and in their glow, she sees visions of happy families around a christmas tree, or a dinner table. They’re beautiful delusions, which burn up her source of warmth too quickly, and… it doesn’t end happily. Like her, I hold up a metaphorical candle to other people’s lives. Faced with images of bejewelled ring fingers, with news of people my age seven rungs up the career ladder, and tales of people more spontaneous than I jetting off to sunnier climes on a moment’s notice, I feel an outsider. Theirs is holy ground I decide. There safety lies. So I look for a star to guide me. They aren’t hard to find- self-proclaimed perfect gifts promise glowing relationships, ‘top christmas hacks’ guarantee total control, and an inundation of Facebook events signpost the way out of loneliness. The sky is positively buzzing with angels, robustly singing their own hallelujahs.
And so I forget that emptiness is a blessed state, that Jesus came for the hollowed-out ones. ‘Inside’ isn’t a sociodemographic space: it’s a touch. We see that in the Gospel of Luke, himself a Gentile outsider among a cast of Jewish writers, when he lists one after the other, how the demoniac living among the tombs was healed, then the bleeding woman, then a young girl brought to life. All ritually unclean; all touched, made whole, and given community again. A fourth-century Latin definition of God- ‘an infinite sphere, whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere’- reminds me that the Divine treads ground that I am too precious to go near. For alongside this cosmic majesty, the Divine comes to us in ‘the scandal of the particular’ (Walter Brueggemann): He was incarnated at a specific time, in a specific place, read, wore, touched, ate specific things. All the more special because of the utterly unremarkableness of those specifics, and so unlike the PR machine of today’s ‘hallelujahs’. In taking on not only particularity, but babyhood- the epitome of vulnerability- it might be expected that Jesus’ birth would be met with feelings of superiority and pride by those around him. After all, they know how to speak, walk, cook, clean, take care of Him. Yet something made them aware, even wavering Joseph, that this life was not theirs to control- the fathers of Jesus and John the Baptist didn’t even get to choose their son’s names, unheard of in those times- because it was not of their making. Quite the reverse.
When I think of my life, I think of it in terms of schedules and lists, something to be handled and hacked, borne with and managed. But when I hold a baby, the foolishness- the childishness even- of all that strikes me clearly. A baby is a bundle of not-yets, it is all hope. It is life unhindered, unencumbered, free by virtue of its dependency. A newborn knows nothing of societal structures and norms, and yet it lives! And so all those absolute imperatives and urgent necessities that I think life depends on are (in that most momentary of moments, for I am a forgetful one) turned upside down. I have mistaken the baubles for the tree. And I am reminded of how carving up and classifying the world, labelling some parts ‘mine’, some parts ‘inside’, others ‘outside’, drains that life from us, and reduces our recognition of it in others.
But though all babies are bundles of potentials, it is a trembling, limited hope they they carry- circumscribed by their humanness, their mortality, and the pressures that will soon bear down upon them. We hope things for them– that they might be loved and free, but they cannot make us hope for the world. This Christmas baby is different. He is our hope, He comes to make possible our not-yets and should-have-beens, and He is constrained- by a womb, by a body, by a cross- that we might be free.
A new start, a cornerstone, a guiding light. All wrapped into one and laid in a manger.
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.