God Still Comes:

A Meditative Journey
Through Advent

Rev. Johann G. Roten, SM



Fingers pointing to the crèche signal the thrust of Advent. They also measure a distance, the distance between us and God. We make it our life's goal to reduce this distance. But, while we desperately try to close the gap that separates us from God, we forget that God has already built the bridge of our encounter with Him. He has come and He is still coming. He has caught up with us and still does it! This is what we would like to meditate about during the current Advent season: God's catching up with us. He approaches from behind, puts his hand on our shoulder and whispers: "Do not fear, I am with you." His presence reminds us of the many ways in which He has approached humanity in the past. There was always purpose and direction in his coming, a sense of progression and holy pedagogy. God's love is that of a teacher and a conqueror. He knows that we are slow to understand, difficult to move and of limited faith capacity. But His ultimate aim is to conquer our heart with His love. Here is how He did it in the past.


A Cycle of Love

Advent means coming: The crèche building doesn't begin right before Christmas, but already at the beginning of the Advent season. Advent isn't in the first place a time of waiting. Advent means coming; and the Advent season symbolizes the long history in which God descends to us, makes his way toward us, and is accepted by us.

God comes: God's unstoppable coming into the world begins with God himself. God is presented as a living Trinity. His is the receptacle of overflowing fullness of life. He is the uninterrupted cycle of love symbolized in the unity of Father, Son and Spirit. God is giving, unending, inexhaustible, as Creator, Redeemer and Spirit giving presence. And this God is at the beginning of the boundless Christmas mystery. He has left the throne of his apparently unapproachable glory and has made his way into time. His love enters into human history in order to write with us the most beautiful love story of all.

God's coming is progressive: This love story is a long journey which leads over countless epochs, long barren periods and not a few stumbling stones, right to the door of our hearts. A story that is told in many languages, and makes its habitat at the crossroads and service areas of many cultures. God's coming cannot be stopped because his love cannot fail. His descent is sheer goodness of heart with no limitations, but for courtesy's sake, he doesn't pass by any human dwelling without knocking.

God's coming is continuous: So, our crèche begins with God. It represented in the first place God's coming as triune Love. Three descending figures embody promise, beginning and continuance of God's coming.

 


The Tent

In Genesis 3:18, Abraham leaves Egypt. He and Sarah strike their tent, move, and dwell in Hebron. In Hebron, Abraham plants his tent and builds an altar (hence, the word Tabernacle is symbolized by tent). Tents are the dwelling of nomads. In Genesis 18, Abraham hosts visitors at his tent camp at Hebron.

To be a pilgrim: God's first and preferred dwelling among people was the tent. At God's command, Abraham left his solidly built townhouse in Ur. He exchanged the sophisticated way of life of a well-to-do city dweller with the unprotected and uncertain existence of a homeless nomad. His dwelling was a tent, his home, the long lonely road. With no permanent place to stay, tent poles and ropes now secured his shelter instead of protective walls and sturdy beams. Household supplies were reduced to the bare essentials: a string of earthernware hanging on the tentpole, water jugs and cooking utensils, a scale, the loom, the hand-mill, the camel's saddle, the flute.

A symbol of faith: It is here, in the tent, that God lived with Abraham and his family, the God who commanded Abraham's departure. God intended the people to internalize the biorhythm of faith as it is concretely expressed in putting up and taking down the tent. The tent represents a place to stay without a place to stay. Movable and breakable, the tent repeatedly urges its dwellers toward departure. The tent points to the road. To be a pilgrim is our first God-given vocation.

Path and development: The tent image stands for the beginning of our God experience. God approaches the people as call, promise and miracle. God's call is a persistent urge and restless drive. The God of the tent is experienced as path and development; he is experience in process and constant movement toward a goal. In associating with him, the people learn the meaning and the demands of loosening and binding. Hence, the God of the tent became the God of freedom: freedom from all that is not freedom for God.


The Land

In Genesis 12: 6-7, Abraham is told by God of an unknown land that will be for his descendents (Canaan). Sarah was buried in Canaan as told in Genesis 23. Canaan is called God's property in Leviticus 25:23.

Moses was told in Exodus 3:17 of God's promise to deliver the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The Israelites depart from Egypt in Exodus 12:37. They traveled through the Red Sea and into the desert. The faithlessness of the Israelites prevents a direct entry into the land of Canaan (Numbers 14, 26:63-65, and 32:6-15). Moses is able to see Canaan from afar (Deuteronomy 34:1-5). In Numbers chapter 20, Moses dies at Mt. Nebo without entering the promised land of Canaan.

God holds and nourishes: The God who called Abraham into his radical discipleship also listens to human needs and whims. The story of Abraham introduces and unfolds a second image: the land.

At first glance, the land stands in opposition to the tent. Did God entice the people out of the city in order to make them settle in a new place? The land is not the property of the people. The land is God's land. The earth is God's. It holds us and nourishes us. The earth, or the land, indicates a further epoch in God's journey to the people. It took form in the life and experiences of Moses.

Holy ground: Thanks to God's kindness and the ruse of two women, Moses was saved from the threatening waters of the Nile. He was given back to the earth and grew ever more radically in the service of that God who spoke to him in the many faces and voices of this earth. Moses followed the call of blood, he placed himself on the side of his people and answered the call of Israel's God. Where God spoke to Moses in the burning thornbush is holy ground. Here the restless pilgrim could rest. His sandals were loosened. Deeply embedded in Moses' consciousness was the conviction: God is the gloriously-mighty Lord to whom heaven and earth belong.

The promised land: God let Moses' people share in his kindness: the water of life from the rock, quail and manna for nourishment. He came down on Sinai's peak in order to endow Moses with heaven's law for the earth. And at the end of Moses' journey, God led him to the final battle on the mountain which became the entry to the promised land. Moses did not taste the honey of the promised land nor drink its milk. He saw it with his arms outstretched in prayer, supported by two companions. In God's time, not sooner, the people were allowed to cross the borders to the new homeland.
A new creation: God has wedded himself to this earth. Its history from then on is his, its name according to the words of Scripture is that of bride and partner. The fruitful land that flowed with milk and honey (Ex. 3,17) is nonetheless only a pale premonition of that new earth which God, maker and redeemer, intended to create (Is. 65,17). The seer of Patmos saw it in a spectacular vision of the future (Rev 21,1).
   
God is a faithful God: If the tent was an expression of the challenge to loosen and bind, so the land, the soil and the earth are an image of God's constancy. God is a faithful God. His love lasts forever. His presence is constant in the city, on the road and in the desert.

Life in God is a hidden life. It obeys the laws of dying and becoming. Fruits ripen only in trust and patience. Life in God is fruitful because in the long run, his goodness is constant.

The Temple

The Temple is a symbol of God's residence and presence with Israel. In I Chronicles 22: 2-5, David brought the Ark to Jerusalem. He assembled stone, metal, and wood in order to build the Temple. Solomon began the actual construction. There are descriptions of the workforce in I Kings 27-32 and II Chronicles 17-18. A fourteen-day-long ceremony of dedication is described in I Kings 8:1-2, 65. The Temple is the heart of Israel's empire (I Kings 8:65). The Temple is a fortress (I Kings 7:51, 14:25-26, 15:18, II Kings 11:10, 12:4).

God among humans: David belongs to the eminent figures of Advent God entrusted himself more and more to the hands of his people and their leaders. David thus became the custodian of God's presence within the chosen people.
David's story marks another step that God takes into the inner spheres of creation and humanity. God's journey to the depths of our heart takes so long because his redemption must penetrate every dimension of reality. If God's presence in the tent and the land was the expression of a cosmological self-manifestation, then in David's mission this became an anthropological turning point at the end of which God took up his dwelling in a temple built by human hands.

A forgiving God: David experienced God's presence and promise in his encounters and difficulties with others. He was chosen to speak out in opposition to King Saul, his former fatherly friend and mentor. The anointing by the prophet Samuel sealed David's call from God. It was the sign of having been chosen; through it David received God's power. This is a partnership which tolerates neither unfaithfulness nor injustice! When David's intrigue robbed his faithful follower, Uriah, of his wife and his life, a disappointed and angry God intervened. He sent the prophet Nathan to David, this time not in order to bless, but to chide, to make the king see and convert. David came to realize what he had done; he did penance for his atrocity. By grace he was drawn once more into God's friendship, yet as a consequence he was denied the privilege of erecting the most glorious memorial of all: the temple. Only his son and successor Solomon would be allowed to build the marvel, and the glory of God would fill it.

The God of the city: David's life led to the threshold of the temple. God made himself more and more dependent on the people. God accompanied his people in all phases and stages of their personal and social development. He did not recoil from becoming the God of the polis, that is, of the political union, of the temple and of the cult. As partner to human beings, he lived among them. He sealed a covenant with them for time and eternity. In the overabundance of his love, God's glory entered Solomon's temple (Ez. 43,4) although the train of his mantle would have been enough to fill the great halls of God's house (Is. 6,1). Later, the human body will be elevated to be the temple of the living God (2 Cor 6,16; Heb 3,6).

Referee and prisoner of love: It is part of God's manifold ways of revealing himself, that the Invisible allows himself to be experienced in visible ways. God became a symbol and a point of reference. He allowed himself, as it were, to be within reach at any time; the Untouchable placed himself at the disposal of the people. This manifestation and availability is symbolized in the temple. Out of love, God allowed himself to be domesticated. The city now became a holy city in whose midst God dwelt.

The Womb

Sarah was a barren woman we are told in Genesis 11:30 and 16:1. In Genesis 18:1-15, there is a prophecy that Abraham and Sarah will conceive a son (Isaac). Samuel's mother prays for a child in I Samuel 1:11. In I Samuel 1:19, Elkanah and Hannah conceive Samuel. An angel tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will have a son in Luke 1:13. In Luke 1:24, the text states that Elizabeth conceived a child (John the Baptist). Mary's virginal conception of Jesus is foretold in Luke 1:31, restated in Luke 2:21. Jesus is called the "fruit of Mary's womb" in Luke 1:42. In Luke 11:27, a woman tells Jesus that blessed is the womb that bore Thee.

Bearers of the promise: Abraham, Moses, David the main actors of the Advent story were men. In reality, the history of the great promise another way to explain the word Advent was filled with great women. They often stood in the shadows of the men, but they were not their inferiors when it came to loving faith..They were bearers of the promise. Our thoughts turn to those women who were the bearers of God's Advent in a physical sense. Without them God's love story with the chosen people would have failed. Above all, without them the singular event that happened to the woman Mary would remain even more puzzling.

The tent, the land and the temple were thresholds and anticipations of a still more intimate relationship between God and human beings. Again and again in the course of the Old Testament, God visited the womb of women in a miraculous way until finally he himself became a human being in the body of a woman.

With God nothing is impossible: In the Old Testament, the bearing and proclaiming of the most beautiful mysteries of encounter with God was often reserved to women who were apparently overlooked in life. One was too old to give birth, another was sterile, and the third was terrified that the life of her newborn would be torn from her and murdered. Still, the miracle happened. God gave and sustained life, contrary to all reason, contrary to nature, and contrary to all expectation. Ancient Sarah fell into fits of laughter when she learned of the coming child. She gave birth to Isaac. Jochebed's son, Moses, who must die according to Egyptian law, became the protector and liberator of the enslaved people. God showed mercy through Hannah's humiliating unfruitfulness. From her body came the prophet Samuel. And who does not know the story of Mary's mysteriously-planned conception and birth, which begins with the meeting of the elderly couple Joachim and Anna at the golden gate? John the Baptizer! He, too, is a living answer to a long-buried expectation. But here, too, the incredible took place, and the child leapt for joy in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth.

With God nothing is impossible. The laws of neither nature nor logic are unconquerable boundaries for God. The omnipotence of his love moves past all hindrances and transforms contradictions into open readiness. When the fullness of time was reached, that is when all other forms of his presence in and among people had played out, God became man in his Son from the woman Mary. He became the God-man and the human being, whose nature he had incorporated, found his way back to his origins in God.
God in the womb: In Mary's womb began the final and most profound God experience of a human, an experience that was in God's hands alone where he grew and gained strength in a human person up to the point where the laws of growth reverse to the contrary and the human being grew ever more intimately close to God. After Mary had participated in the fully human development of her son, she matured in Christ's school to the fullness of her own faith. She became the ever-present figure and model of the church. We, too, may become Christ-bearers for one another as Christ's life increases in us.

The Heart

The heart is the location where conversion to Christ takes place. This is explained in Acts 2:37, Psalm 51:10, and Joel 2:12. In I John 5:10, the reader is told that the testimony of God is in the believer's heart. In Revelations 2:23, God is called the searcher of hearts and minds. In Ephesians 3:17, there is a prayer "may Christ dwell in your heart through faith and may charity be the foundation of your life." In Galatians 4:6, we are told that God sent forth into our hearts the Holy Ghost.

God's final destination: On Christmas Eve the actual crèche festival begins. God comes. He is there. He is visibly there. He has finally allowed himself to be caught in the net of human destiny. He shares the helplessness of the child and the homelessness of the refugee. He experiences in his own body the laws of growth and becoming. He endures the anxieties of the soul and tastes the joys of the spirit. He is thrown into a network of relationships that carry him, stretch him and ultimately, humanly speaking, will crush him.

But today is the crèche festival. We celebrate the feast of God's presence. For all times, this moment has been preserved in a multitude of images, momentary snapshots that will have been changed and are shaped over and over again innumerable times. The crèche proclaims this one faith in manifold variations in a silent and yet strongly expressive message: "The old reign came to an end because God in human form appeared for the new age of eternal life. And it had its beginning with what had been prepared by God." (Ignatius of Antioch)

Crèche: symbol of the heart: Our crèche does not miss any of the classical elements: Mother and Child, Joseph somewhat to the side, the silent presence of the animals, the star over the stall. On the right are the shepherds, on the left the three kings with their treasures.

The crèche guarantees the historical reality of God's presence. But it is also a symbol that points further. The crèche points to our hearts. The heart is the final destination of God's coming, your heart, my heart, and the hearts of everyone, because God has come to all people and for all people. Where the heart remains closed, God has been unsuccessful in reaching the goal. Advent does not come to a close, as if the crèche building were only a lovely game. Crèche and heart have many things in common. They both stand for faith's poverty and love's wealth. The fragile crèche guards the covenant of love, as it is embodied in the Holy Family. In a similar way, a new covenant is sealed in the hearts of the people, a covenant which in its own way is an image of the Trinity and the Holy Family.

The original text was authored by Johann G. Roten, S.M. under the title Gottes Kommen in der Zeit: Ein Krippenbau. Translator: M. Jean Frisk. The English text given here is an excerpt of the original and has been edited by the author.


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