Last year, we bought our first ever advent wreath, complete with candles. At dinner, we light the candles, say a prayer and spend a minute talking about Jesus’ birthday.
My little boys aren’t quite ready for the subtle mix of excitement and longing that’s offered in this season. I’ve been reading our daily office lectionary during this time and it has reminded me that this is an apocalyptic season–and I don’t just mean the scene at the mall. Our anticipation is for an end to history–with its blood and its sorrow. We wait for a final return of the Son of God, when creation will be brought to its final and perfect state.
Like I said, this is the sort of nuance that my boys aren’t quite ready for. They haven’t felt the burden of history, haven’t been exposed to the myriad ways in which creation has diverged from God’s initial proclamation of its goodness.
But it isn’t as if they understand nothing. It’s convenient that my three year-old’s birthday is right at the beginning of advent. He gets the idea of gift giving and celebration. Of course, he may be disappointed that on Christmas Day we don’t get to go to Chic-fil-a with all his friends. But he has recent experience with the building excitement of a coming day on a calendar.
The birthday proximity comes with its own difficulty, though. There’s a glut of December/January birthdays in our family–my son’s, an uncle’s, a grandfather’s. So every night when we discuss Jesus’ birthday, my son has to place it in context with the others. So he rehearses: “First is my birthday, then Uncle Kason’s, then Jesus’, then Pops’ birthday.
My immediate reaction to this is to emphasize that Jesus’ birthday is special–that it stands apart from these other birthdays. But, I was just reading this week a line from C.S. Lewis in an essay called “Is Theology Poetry?” In it, Lewis discusses the relationship between the gospel narrative and similar stories of miraculous birth and resurrection in other cultures and religions. He says that watching the coming of Jesus is “like watching something come gradually into focus: first it hangs in the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first-century Palestine.”
All of our anticipation, which has nearly reached its climax, has at its core this central paradox. In Christ’s future coming, we look for grandness, something wild and huge. At the same moment, we remember this little child, born in a barn because of Roman census–a baby born into time, into history.
All our candles are lit. We await an arrival. And so we say with great anticipation of all we can imagine and all that is beyond our imagining: Come, Lord Jesus.