I missed an exit and hit the steering wheel in frustration. The irony of that moment was not quickly lost: on my way to a personal, silent retreat for the weekend I was painfully demonstrating my need of it. The past week had personified freneticism, with calendar events and responsibilities running over and into each other to the point where my brain couldn’t stop whirling through the future long enough to attend to the present moment. And attentiveness is so crucial for meaning, so days ended without feeling like I had done anything, much less done it well.
As I drove I simultaneously processed through my frustration with the fact that I had scheduled this retreat so late in the semester and my incredible gratefulness for that fact, knowing this was precisely the moment it was most needed. Knowing it is for these moments that discipline exists. Knowing that my clench on my self-sufficient abilities to get it all done was becoming dangerously tight, and I needed to release control.
Silence and solitude, especially in our modern day culture, is so much about control. How will it get done if I’m not doing it? How is this remotely productive? Does this experience mean anything (in a culture of meaning via affirmation) if I’m not sharing it? And, when we dig a bit deeper: what if God doesn’t show up? What am I without words, without roles, without relationships, without external purpose? What if, in the removal of distractions I lose not only my ability to control my world but my ability to control my own emotions? What might I feel in the slowness, and what might it cause me to say to God?
As I got further from the city, even the very landscape submitted to the decrease of control. Six lanes became four, then two, then shoulders disappeared and double yellows became more like suggestions on curves, hemmed in by mountain and field. I drove through dusk and the lights got less and less frequent, but more striking. The combination of the earliness of winter darkness and the coming of Christmas made for lit up houses around bends, light spilling softly from living rooms and Christmas trees in windows, or not as softly from giant inflatable santas. I had Christmas music playing in the background of my slowly unraveling thoughts, a word or phrase of familiar songs inserting itself into the landscape’s reminders. I pulled into the driveway of the tiny house I had rented for the weekend and, as promised, the owner had left a light on: the only light in view, breaking through the darkness.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Isaiah’s words have been dear to me at Christmas for several years now. As I carried my bags in from the car, set things in order, turned on the fake “fireplace” heater, and settled down into the one chair in this simple, 10×20 space, the word came almost instantly: Incarnation. Simple, common, almost expected at this time of year, it was like I was hearing it for the first time. The light breaking through darkness of Isaiah’s words was metaphorical and spiritual, but it was also concrete, physical, and desperate. Christ’s birth is not just the fuzzy, warm light of ethereal hope stirring hearts, but the life-saving lighthouse or lantern to the utterly lost and despairing. The light became real and entered the world. Christ became man. Incarnation.
The Incarnation is the greatest meaning-maker this world has ever known. God came: Into this stuff, into this mess, into this food and sand and sore muscles and star-filled nights and children’s laughter and hay in a manger. He came: not with disgust, and not with resignation, but with zeal. With joy! With light bursting through cracks that cannot hold it back. And in that He proclaimed that this life matters so much I’m going to live it. I’m going to taste it and feel it and walk it and live it…thirty three years of it in twenty-four hour days, just like you do. Learning to wait, just like you must. Learning to pay attention, just like you must. Living open to the world so I could die for you who are made of it. He could have done it another way. He could have saved us and taken us out, but He doesn’t. What does that say about the meaning and the wonder of the stuff our lives?
God’s abundance does not come through His gifts, it comes through His life, and it is made known in the transformation of the ordinary stuff of our lives and our world. Five loaves feed five thousand. Water becomes wine. “The ordinary stuff in all its scarcity” (Walter Brueggemann) becomes enough. Becomes more than enough. Think of the miracles of God: so many of them are scarcity to abundance miracles. The manna came. The widow’s flour and oil did not run out. The people ate and were filled. And Pentecost: one of the greatest miracles of abundance, when His presence descended to dwell with each of his children. To be with us always, even to the end of the age. This incarnate God, still in our life, is everyday transforming its scarcity.
I sat in the quiet and the dim and let the questions roll with the tears. It is hard sometimes, in the scarcity of the not yet to believe that the abundance of the already is also here. Sometimes I am afraid it will never feel like enough. But the Incarnation means that God Himself redeemed human anxiety in the garden and human longing in His tears. He does not condemn my longings. He is not afraid of my fears. He knows. He lived the scarcity that sometimes is our human lives. To know Him better, I do not need to escape this life. I need to see its ordinary abundance.
The next morning I climbed a mile up the dirt road beside the cabin. At the top of the hill I turned to face the field in front of me, sloping down to trees and rising to larger hills beyond. I stopped and stood, the quiet nearly ringing in my ears. A bird called, tires crunched on gravel somewhere far down in the valley, some sort of machine rumbled to life on the farm I had just passed. But mostly, it was quiet. A tear slipped down my cheek with no concrete source or explanation, almost as if it was squeezed out simply by the weight of that silence. The wind blew cold on the wetness on my cheek, but I didn’t brush it away. I looked closer to the field in front of me. Tumbles of grass mixed with dried up flowers. The goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s lace stood straight up from it all, brittle and dry. At first glance they were simply dead, but in a longer gaze, still fifty different shades of brown for which there are no names. The wind blew gently and they made no resistance and no noise, just quiet bending response. How often, I wondered, does the Spirit blow in my life as He has in these few days, but I miss it because I am not still enough to hear? Am I willing to bend in response, the slightest of movements evidencing my release of control?
I stood there until I got too cold to linger more. I don’t know how long it was. All it cost was time, which for once wasn’t my measure. It was long enough, though, that when I started walking again, my stiff muscles cried in protest. But the remedy for stiff muscles is to use them – to gently work them back into remembrance of action and discipline long known; of what they were created for. So I pushed further on, then down the hill, in physical rhythm affirming that the Lord had spoken in the stillness, and I wanted to work it into remembrance throughout this Advent season. I want the reality of His Incarnation to change not simply one day, or one season, but the whole of my life. If I believe in Christ’s companionship and abundance in the longings of scarcity, how does that profoundly change my waiting? If I truly believe that my God embodied full and perfect humanity, how does that change the honor and attentiveness and wonder I want to give this life that He has given me?
Two simple, quiet days in December at a tiny cabin in the woods framed the whole of Advent for me this year. And finally, we are here. This night where we remember the whole of earth poised to host the Poem. We remember doors thrown open to light and meaning and hope, to the presence of God in every astounding, intimate detail of our lives. Christ came and in that gave meaning to working muscles and tears, to dairy farms and wind and goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace; to words and anxieties and longings. This Advent I needed to be reminded to quiet my life enough to see. Only then can the ordinary astound with wonder. And wonder proclaims glory, and glory ushers in shalom.
The people who live in darkness have seen a great light…
For unto us a Child is born.
He came. No scarcity can diminish that abundance. He came. And He is still here.
Walter Brueggemann’s Advent devotional, Celebrating Abundance, and Christopher Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, both read during this Advent, have greatly influenced and shaped my extended meditation on the Incarnation and this capturing of it.