By Jeffrey Hubbard, a deacon at Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills
I think that Advent is a lot like dating… because Advent is about waiting. And not only does “waiting” rhyme with “dating,” dating involves a lot of waiting, because it’s so tentative.
Advent is the time when we anticipate the coming of the Lord among us. We remember Israel’s expectation of the coming of the Messiah, and we who have been grafted into Israel anticipate the second coming of the Messiah, Jesus.
Many of us who have dated can see the parallels, no doubt. There’s the anticipation of a special someone bursting onto the scene, center stage, and changing everything. But until that happens, sometimes dating can make someone feel – that like Israel had been for generations and generations – they’ve been in exile… feeling a yearning for something called “home” that they’ve heard whispers and rumors and musings about but for them it seems so far off it can’t possibly be real.
And then you meet someone… that makes you think that it could be real, then makes you feel that you know it is…
But then… more waiting. It’s a process, it takes time.
Last Advent, Jodi and I were still dating. And at that point, I had no idea what was about to hit me the following winter: the polar vortex.
I remember so many winter nights, at the end of the evening we’d say our farewells and share good-bye kisses…. And I’d depart. And no matter how much I braced myself for it, every time that bitter cold would smack me in the face like a bag of bricks the second I stepped outside.
And the car I was driving at the time…. Was a car that was probably unfit to be driven by any human being, ever, let alone during the worst winter in recorded history.
The fifteen minute drive home felt like forever. The “heat” in my car, if you could call it that – turned to full-blast – would just start to kick in as I pulled in my driveway, if I was lucky… the frosted patch on the windshield a testament to this, a remnant of panting breath from shivering lungs breathed through chattering teeth.
After a week or so I thought, “There’s no way it can just go on and on like this…” Again and again, countless nights, it did go on like this.
I have never been in exile, but… There were moments during that eternal winter I felt like I got a taste of it. It made me yearn for home – for that feeling of warmth and rest and knowing I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be – even more…. For the feeling when any tension you feel just melts away, when anxious and frantic breathing turns to contented sighs of relief, and with every breath you take you feel this increasing sense of peace and well-being, feeling safe and secure like a baby, swaddled and sweetly sleeping in the cozy cradle of its mother’s arms.
And this is what “home” is, really. It’s not so much a place, as a feeling, but not so much a feeling as an experience, something that soaks down deep into the soil of our hearts and makes life bloom and blossom in a way that we never imagined possible.
And home is not so much a place, or a feeling, or an experience, but a person… and this is who Jodi is to me. And because of this, all of the bitter cold nights were worth it, because the bitter cold of that eternal winter is nothing compared to the tender warmth of her love.
* * * * *
St. Augustine, in his Confessions, talks about how God is our home. “We know that you have made us for yourself,” he says, “and that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” And isn’t this what home is? The place we feel most at rest? Augustine says later about the journey home, “Woe betide the soul which supposes it will find something better if it forsakes you! Toss and turn as we may – on our back, on our side, on our belly – our bed is hard at every point for you alone are our rest. But lo, here you are. You rescue us from our wretched meanderings and establish us in your way. You console us, and bid us, ‘Run, I will carry you, I will lead you, and I will bring you home.’”
All of the love in this world that we find, all of the feelings of home that we feel, are a foretaste, a sneak preview of the love of God that finds us where we are and carries us from here to our home in him.
And we find ourselves in the midst of this story. It’s a story that started long before we were born and doesn’t end when we die. It’s a story about God and all of God’s people, across time and around the world, starting with Adam and Eve, continuing with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with Israel and Jesus and the Church – such an often curious cast of characters.
The two which were featured in our Scripture readings today – David and Mary – present a striking contrast.
At this point in his life, David is the man. He’s gone from rags to riches, he’s a powerful king, a conquering warrior, a star musician, and quite the dancer. Mary, on the other hand, is a “normal” teenage girl living in an occupied territory among an oppressed people. And God speaks to them both in startling ways.
David looks around him and sees his opulent dwelling, his palace where he has it made.
If MTV Cribs was being filmed in ancient Israel, David’s house would’ve been their first stop. And David starts to think one day, sees the contrast and thinks, “The ark of the covenant is sitting in a tent out back, while I live here. Is this really right?” So he wants to build a temple, a house for God that’s even nicer than his. He consults the prophet Nathan and Nathan says “Go for it.”
They go on their way, and think all is well, but Nathan comes back the next day and tells David, “Not so fast. You’re not the one to build God a house.”
But there’s a twist. It isn’t just left at that. David wanted to build God a house, but what God says to David is, “Your house will be my house. Your son will be my Son. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me, your throne shall be established forever.”
A temple for God, of course, was built. It was destroyed, but God’s promise to David remained. The temple was eventually rebuilt, and some have actually speculated that Mary was sewing a new veil for the temple when Gabriel visited her, announcing that through her the promise long ago made to David would be fulfilled. Gabriel, speaking to Mary about Jesus, echoes the words spoken to David,
“The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
These are majestic words, and in their echoes from the story of David into the story of Mary we see God’s promises woven through the tapestry of time into beautiful and unexpected fulfillment.
Yet I wonder if, through the years, through the centuries of exile and turmoil, the echoes were drowned out and the promise was forgotten. After all, in Mary’s day, God had a house. The temple was there, spectacular in all of its grandeur, beautiful in all of its gold and its cedar and incense and ceremony.
In the shadow of the temple, the place where you’d expect to find God, it’s no wonder Mary was startled by the angel’s announcement, “the Lord is with you.”
But it’s not just that the Lord is with her, it’s how the Lord will be with her – as her son, as a baby. As someone who will need a home.
David said to God, “I want to build you a house.” God said to David, “Your house will be my house.” But God said to Mary, “You will be my home.”
And for nine months God dwells within Mary. As a great biblical scholar I know once said, her body is his temple, “Mary’s womb is the new Ark of the Covenant.” But God isn’t just with Mary in the same way he’s with other people who come into his presence at the temple, God is with Mary as a baby.
I wonder if God was seeking something more, something beyond the temple. In the temple, God had a house, but in Mary, God found a home.
Some might be tempted by this thought to see a rejection of materiality, to say the temple, a physical space, represented empty religion, going through the motions, lots of pomp and circumstance and no substance, but Mary on the other hand, had a right heart, and had relationship with God, and it’s really about the heart, all of this physical stuff doesn’t matter.
But the Gospel dispels this notion immediately. Mary’s relationship with God was as physical as it gets. For nine months she felt the morning sickness, the food cravings, the kicks on the inside of her ribs. She felt the pain – which I won’t even dare to attempt to describe – of childbirth. It doesn’t get any more physical than that.
And then she holds Jesus in her arms. The newborn nuzzles into his mother’s breast, seeking not merely the sustenance of food but the nourishment of love, the warmth that only occurs when one body holds another. He is soothed by the steady rhythm of the beat from within her chest and comforted by the tenderness of her touch as she cradles his head in the crook of her arm, the words of the angel in the back of her mind, the immediacy of his neediness rooting her in this moment, as she treasures all these things in her heart.
In Mary, Jesus – God – had a home.
* * * * *
We are so familiar with the longing for home, but we don’t often think of it as something that God experiences as well. But it makes sense, that the God who becomes human experiences this most human of longings. “Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.” God with us, God dwelling with us. God at home with us. As St. Paul says, our body is his temple.
How often do we desire to build God a house? To do something for him, to accomplish something on his behalf, to do his work. There’s nothing wrong with this. But this isn’t all there is. God wants to be with us, to dwell in us. Advent is a season to learn this. To – just for a time – forget about building God a house and remember that he wants to make us his home.
Advent is about waiting. But it isn’t just about us waiting, God is waiting too. Because while we are wanting to build God a house, God is waiting to make us his home.
And so “let every heart prepare him room,” let all of us prepare his home.