The title of an Alan Woods book “The Journey is the Destination” sticks in my mind as the very hub of what Advent means.
Because unless we get on the road, we never begin.
Fred Buechner said, in his classic Magnificent Defeat: “For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”
Bethlehem is the start of the journey! It’s so interesting -and significant- that the journey motif is strong in the gospel birth narratives: the pre-birth journeying of Mary to Elizabeth, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the journey of the wise men, the escape into Egypt… It’s like a parable of discovery, of voyaging in the dark.
And not even knowing for certain what you might find.
Annie Lamott once said: “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don’t give up.” And that’s exactly right. Hope begins in the dark, like the frail seedling sprouting in the womb of the young Mary.
Maybe “Pregnancy” is just another word for Advent?
We can’t count off trimesters with God, however. We can’t plan or pin down exactly what he’s doing and when he’s going to do it. “God’s movement is often abrupt and unsettling rather than predictable and settling” -Michael Joseph Brown.
And so it is now, at Advent, that I am given the chance to suspend all expectation…and instead to revel in the mystery. Jerusalem Jackson Greer added, in a darker vein: “The thing I love most about Advent is the heartbreak. The utter and complete heartbreak.”
Heartbreak? Mary bore the prophecies within her not only of the glory-child of Isaiah 9 but of the suffering hero of Isaiah 53. “And a sword will pierce your own soul.” So yes, heartbreak too. When God calls us to trust, it doesn’t necessarily mean that from now on the road is clear and the obstacles are all gone. Mostly it’s the reverse of that.
“Advent” is quirky and strange. Worrisome even, yet awe-inspiring. Something has birthed. Something is on its way.
“Aslan is on the move.”
There’s a sermon of good old John Piper, who hits the note exactly: “The only people whose soul can truly magnify the Lord are…people who acknowledge their lowly estate and are overwhelmed by the condescension of the magnificent God.”
He’s half-quoting the Magnificat, of course, but acknowledging the topsy-turviness of Chritmas, of Kingdom Come. In the familiar phrase of New Testament scholars: “The Kingdom of God is the Already but the Not Yet.”
Something is here, and something is to come.
Are you ready to reach for home? This morning I’ve been re-reading an old favourite. It’s T.S.Eliot’s The Journey Of The Magi. It picks up the ambiguity of the Christmas search, and the whole journey of faith, but ends with a quiet hopefulness. The hope is sure: Once you’ve really seen this truth about Jesus, you can never un-see it; you can never settle back in the old way of living. Here’s the poem:
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.