Today marks the third Sunday in Advent—the season in the Church calendar where we wait, with great hope and anticipation, for the coming of Jesus to earth, both as fully God and fully human.
We are grateful for the words of Dr. J.P. Kang, who provides us a renewed lens through which to see our relationship to the Advent story and the divine—the familiar in the unfamiliar, and the known in the unknown.
When I visit a home for the first time, the space that typically feels the most unfamiliar is the kitchen, because so much is concealed. I must ask or learn by trial and error where things are. This experience of discovering things in kitchens is pervasive because there is no universal standard for organizing such spaces, but that, of course, is also precisely what makes one’s kitchen (or, by extension, home) distinctly personal.
The discipline of User Experience (UX) studies human-object interactions (e.g., doorknobs, dashboards, appliances, etc.) in order to improve reliability and to reduce frustration. These interactions generate a language which describes the form and function of the objects within a context. Learning to read, write, and speak this language—its vocabulary, grammar, and syntax—is challenging, and inevitably, some things will get lost in translation.
These examples of seeking the familiar in the unfamiliar, the known in the unknown, may provide us a fresh way to think about the Christian tradition and our relationship to it.
How do you experience unfamiliar “rooms” and “floors” of the Bible? If you are only familiar with one house, what happens when you venture out and spend time in an unfamiliar space? Sebastian Moore (OSB) memorably observed that “God behaves in the Psalms in ways that [God] is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.” Is it possible that the good news is not “one size fits all” but is irreducibly rich, relational, and contextual? And what is lost in the translation of the Scriptures from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into modern languages?
And how then can we be certain that our experiences of the divine—both familiar and unfamiliar—are authentic? How do we recognize God’s form and function, especially when we are afraid? The Psalmist offers one answer:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
Comfort comes from recognizing the protective presence of the divine Shepherd. Jesus adds that sheep follow the shepherd “because they know his voice” (John 10:3). What is the most consistent mark of Jesus’s voice and presence that help us recognize him in the new and unfamiliar? I believe the answer is love.
God’s alphabet specifies a DNA of faithful creativity, including such bases as the power of the spoken word (e.g., “let there be light” as well as “thus says the LORD”) and the relationship binding the divine community. God’s vocabulary is comprised of the persons and families that are expressions of that DNA, every one created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27). God’s syntax governs the coordination of those vocables into phrases, clauses, and sentences. For example, the drama of the exodus from Egypt and the spectacle of the cross both realize divine compassion in surprising ways. The unexpected return from Babylonian exile and the resurrection show that God’s grammar describes a living language, one that can still
communicate effectively today.
If God is love (so 1 John 4:8), God’s form and function may be discerned whenever we humans love one another (1 John 4:12). If we keep our senses tuned to the divine frequency of love that resonates in all living creatures, we will be able to discern God in unexpected persons and places, including a newborn in a feed trough.
Christmas is less about presents being unwrapped or answers being revealed than it is about this mind-bending idea that God became one of us, in carne, in the flesh.
Why would God so empty and humble himself (Philippians 2:5–8)? Why would the Creator voluntarily subject the self to creaturehood with all its limitations and difficulties? Why else but to enter and fully know our lives, and therefore to love us as we are?
God in Christ knows the dysfunctions of our families (Matthew 20:20–24), the anguishes of chronic illnesses (Mark 1:34), the shadows of terminal diagnoses (John 4:49), and even the unspeakable sadness of the death of beloved children (Matthew 9:18; Luke 7:12). Mary, too, would one day experience the death of her beloved son.
Advent is a season of light and shadows (Matthew 2:16–18). The light of the world shines in our darkness (John 1:5), a light seen most fully in the face of Jesus, who is said to be “the image (Greek eikon) of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). May we, like Mary, contemplate and treasure even the things we do not understand (Luke 2:19).