By Simon Cuff
Lo, he comes with clouds descending, once for favoured sinners slain; thousand thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! God appears on earth to reign.
‘Advent’ means ‘to come’. During the season of Advent, we wait for the Lord’s coming. As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming at Christmas, we usually associate this season with that first coming, when God entered into our world as one of us to save all of us.
There is a long tradition in the Church of using the season of Advent, during which we prepare to celebrate that first coming, to look forward to the second. The famous “O antiphons” from evening prayer in the last days of Advent (on which the great Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is based) are full of anticipation of Christ’s coming again: “Come and deliver us and do not delay!”
The season of Advent invites us to reflect more closely on the first coming, so we as his Church might be found ready for the second. In the baby of Bethlehem, what do we learn about what it means for God to enter into and act within the world? And how do we learn to prepare ourselves for that coming again?
We want God’s entry into the world to be big and impressive, to reflect the images we have learned from childhood of a god who is a bit like us but more impressive; with love bigger than ours, with more power than us, able to do more than we can. When we can’t fix this or that, or get our way, we want God to come in and sort it out. We want God to be a sort of superhero, zapping evil and going about doing good.
Before Christ came, we can read the expectations of the people of God about what the Messiah would be like when he came. At places our Old Testament imagines a mighty saviour who will come to right the wrongs experienced by the people of God here and now.
The Scrolls found at the Dead Sea feature prophecies of mighty battles with a messiah-figure leading armies and defeating Roman hordes. When the Messiah comes he will be bigger and better and stronger than us, there’ll be trumpets and lightning and he’ll crush all our enemies.
At the end of Advent, we’ll sing “How silently, how silently, the wond’rous gift is given.” These words are given to us in the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” We often understand them in line with our image of Jesus as the superhero we want him to be – Jesus the perfect baby who never cries.
In fact, it’s rather important that he does cry – that he’s a real living, breathing, crying human baby. Because it’s important for our salvation that God has become a real living, breathing, crying human baby. God comes into the world not with a bang, but literally with a whimper.
“How silently, how silently, the wond’rous gift is given.” When God enters the world, he confounds our expectations. God doesn’t give us and big and impressive act of deliverance. He becomes a human being. He doesn’t send or raise up some mighty warrior to deliver his people. He becomes one of us to draw us to himself.
When he enters the world there is no trumpet blast, no fanfare, no glorious vision – just a baby lying in a manger. “No ear can his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in,” as the hymn goes.
At the end of that baby’s life, he has supper with his disciples, takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it and gives it to his disciples, saying: “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, afterwards he takes a cup of wine, gives thanks and gives it to them saying: “Drink this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. “
We want his presence among us to be big and impressive, but the sign he has left us once again confounds our expectations – he comes to us in broken bread and wine outpoured. He shows how to live, to pour ourselves out for others.
We often overlook the majority of Christ’s life. A real, living, breathing, crying human baby grows, as we’d expect, into a real living, breathing, (probably sometimes crying), human adult. We hear little of Jesus in these years, because there’s little to hear.
Little to hear, but this little to hear that is truly remarkable: God is living a fairly ordinary human life. God confounds our expectations about what a divine life might be.
When God comes, when he acts, he confounds our expectations.
When God came as of one us, he lived a life a lot like ours. For the most part, not a life that was big and impressive, but a life that was normal. The remarkably normal and therefore remarkable human life of God.
Except, because it’s God human life, it’s anything but normal. It confounds our expectations about what a human life might be. He teaches us how a human life might be lived, not for itself, but for others. He teaches us how to love, to pour ourselves out like him in the midst of normal, ordinary human lives. He teaches us how to love. It’s this love which he asks of the Church he finds when he does come again.
An Advent hymn sums all of this up for us: “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, great David’s greater Son! Hail in the time appointed his reign on earth begun… To him shall prayer unceasing and daily vows ascend; his kingdom still increasing, a kingdom without end. The tide of time shall never his covenant remove; his name shall stand forever; that name to us is love.”
As we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ at Christmas, we pray that we might live our rather normal lives rather more like his. We pray that we, as his Church, might love more, so that we might confound the expectations of those outside the Church, just as he confounds our expectations when he acts and enters into our world.
When he does come at the end of time, we pray that we might be living lives of love, so that the whole Church might greet him as one: “Yea, Amen, let all adore thee, high on thine eternal throne; Saviour, take the power and glory, claim the kingdom for thine own: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Thou shalt reign and thou alone.”
Let us use this Advent to grow in the love with which God confounded our expectations and showed us how to live remarkably, his remarkable ordinary life.
The Rev. Dr. Simon Cuff is tutor and lecturer in theology at St. Mellitus College, London