Perhaps the impossible might be possible with God: that in opening ourselves in prayer, we will be ready to receive that which we cannot conceive, to hold that which we cannot grasp, to love he who is love. But preparation for what we cannot expect is not an easy task and can seem—and perhaps actually be—impossible. When our precious expectations threaten to blind us to the very reality before us, the challenge is to orient our eyes to see precisely what is there rather than what we think we want to see.
In lives crowded with distractions, pressing matters, and everyday obligations, it is good to have signs that tell us “slow down ahead” and “stop.” And, indeed, we often recognize these signs because we have seen them before—because we know, in advance, what they mean. The traditions that call us out of our usual routine and proclaim, “Christmas is coming,” are well and good. Music, food, decorations all tell us that this time of year is different and special. But just as important as having such signs is the way we respond to them.
The stop signs on the side of those roads I know well never really encourage me to take notice of the intersection. I expect the stop-sign, I recognize it without really thinking about it. Such a sign does get me to stop, but it does not get me to notice. I simply start again towards my destination. However, an unexpected slow-down that results from an accident (that is, precisely that which does not have to be there, something unnecessary, or in a word, gratuitous) does invite me to look and see—to really notice—something I had not seen before. And while I can, in all my preoccupations, see nothing but a slowdown—that is, a hindrance to me—the impact of witnessing the scars of an accident more often than not serves to shake me out of my complacency and to see something that I did not anticipate. Do the signs of Christmas, in being expected, allow us to continue on our way without requiring us to take notice? Or do they entreat us take notice of all that is given to us, all that which comes to us as unexpected, uncontrolled, and from an origin beyond ourselves?
The scriptures tell us of one of these signs of the impossible-to-anticipate anticipation of God with us. We hear of a voice crying out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
[Isaiah 40: 3]
To open ourselves to such a daunting task, let’s try an experiment:
- Find yourself a delicious treat. That’s right. Go on and get a piece of tastiness. For the sake of consistency and personal preference, I will refer to this delectable morsel as “chocolate.”
- Recognize all the various ways by which you might be able to think yourself to a deeper conceptual grasp of the chocolate. You can consider the historical origin of chocolate. You can list its ingredients. You can imagine, or even visit, its processing plant where the company produces mass quantities of chocolate just like the piece in your hand. You can (but often choose not to) learn the number of calorie count or grams of fat that you will consume in just one bite.You can even anticipate its taste upon your tongue.
- Recognizing this, I invite you to bracket it all. I invite you to take all these facts that you can ascertain about the chocolate, put it in brackets—[facts]—and put it aside. Forget all you know or think you know about chocolate.
- Place it on the palm of your hand before you. Recognize the way it looks in the light, its packaging (or lack thereof), its coloring, its weight pushing down upon the palm of your hand.
- And now taste it. Allow it to sit on your tongue for a while. Focus only on the taste.
- Are there multiple layers of taste? Or a single strong flavor? Does the taste approach you quickly or slowly? Does the taste linger pleasantly in your mouth, or does it strike like a flash and quickly fade? Is the texture a melt-away smooth? Is it resistant? Is it rough or grainy?
- Does your body respond to the taste? Does your breathing shift? Does your blood quicken or slow down?
- What was it like, tasting this morsel of goodness?
The difficulty in “accurately” describing such an experience is large part of the reason specialists create a whole new application of words to apply to their chosen fields (Just think of the way that the descriptions of wine can sound absurd to an amateur: “full-bodied, chewy, with a nice nose”?). In a way that borders on poetry, words are used in new and unexpected ways to mirror what is striking about the taste. Certainly there are nuances in chocolate that are lost are the common palate. But there are as many, if not more, of these nuances that are lost to inattention and fixed ideas. Knowing what chocolate will taste like, always anticipating that the next bite will be the deliciousness I remember, can prevent me from actually experiencing the taste of the chocolate as it presents itself on my tongue. And so I find that I can continue to mindlessly pop dark chocolate covered almonds in my mouth, knowing that I like them, but without actually paying any attention to them.
I offer a thought: analogous to such an experiment, one way to prepare ourselves for what we cannot anticipate—that is, the reality of God with us—is to bracket our expectations, all we so confidently “know” about Christmas, and open ourselves to what the day offers to us. I propose that we try to conform ourselves to the day, and not demand that the day conform itself to us.
We can find help in this endeavor in something as simple and common as a re-made Christmas song. That Christmas songs are re-done and re-released by the latest pop star is nothing that might make us stop and take note. But to actually listen to a newly arranged interpretation of something we thought we already knew can be a striking experience. That Tracy Chapman released her own version of “O Holy Night” is not particularly notable. But listening to it, I found myself imagining that I was approaching a manger, alone on a dark path, with no other stirring save the gentle movements of a young mother. There was a stillness in the song that I’ve never noticed before—and the power that I had always associated with the song (a power harnessed more traditionally by the likes of Charlotte Church or Josh Groban) had all of a sudden become focused on the simple movements of the young mother. Of course, I had to know something about such movements to imagine them. And that’s the most remarkable thing—not only does my wife’s interaction with my four month old give me a glimpse into that night some two thousand years ago, but the loving vulnerability of God with us invites me to see my baby daughter in a new light. And that new light, the light of concrete immediate love, opens me to something that I may have thought I knew but whose meaning I cannot exhaust. I did not expect to come face to face with God with us in my wife and daughter’s impromptu and unintentional presentation of “Madonna and child.”
Again, it’s nothing new to speak of the magic in the eyes of children as they celebrate Santa’s delivery. But the magic is rooted in the fact that for our little ones, the gifts under the tree are still gratuitous, that is, they don’t have to be there. They are still actually gifts. For all we might say about the (oh so Pelagian) “Naughty” and “Nice” lists and despite the fact that children hope for gifts—they are still excited to receive them. Nowhere does either being nice or hoping for gifts translate into children calculating what they feel they deserve and expect (or if it does, it is then that we witness the very disappearance of the magic).
Bracketing all we confidently think we know and expect. Hearing something old as if we’ve heard it for the first time. Accepting the gratuity of the love in our lives rather than demanding what we are entitled to. These may be three possible ways to welcome the seemingly impossible message of Christmas. After all, in this final week of Advent, we await the one who says to us, “Behold, I make all things new.” Including, I might add, our own expectations and ideas of who God is and how we might come to see the face of God with us. In the wake of the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote of this always unexpected, always gratuitous renewal:
My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.
Trying to bracket all we think we know about the coming of Jesus Christ, all that we have come to expect and demand, may very well help to open our eyes to the signs that Christmas has to offer. Might we have the courage to pray, really pray, that God with us might shatter our ideas and preconceptions, leaving us dazzled and more than a bit crazed? Do we have the hope to stand in the shattered ruins of our limitations? Can we pray that we might—beyond limits of what is possible for us—see the signs of Christmas, to really see them, as opportunities to notice what we may otherwise overlook, to hold what we otherwise would not touch, to love what we otherwise could not embrace? Might we not, in this way, begin to truly welcome God with us?