Almost everyone loves babies. And when the baby is the incarnate Lord, making himself completely vulnerable as a helpless infant, we are that much more moved at his coming, his advent, his nativity.
If the author of the Gospel of John knew of these stories, however, he seems to have been relatively unimpressed. And so we look forward to hearing Matthew and Luke’s nativity narrative, repeatedly, and perhaps glance over brief inclusions of passages from John.
And yet it is the Gospel of John that gives us the broadest perspective, and to me the most meaningful context of the incarnation. Matthew looks especially to the import of the incarnation in the context of God’s relationship to his people as revealed in Jewish history, indicated by the beginning of the Gospel, the genealogy of Jesus reaching back to Abraham. While Matthew includes signs of the Roman imperial context, it remains to Luke to place the incarnation squarely in that world, with his elegant and scholarly dedication and his direct signal to “the time of Caesar Augustus.” Both contexts are necessary to explore, and I doubt that the author of the Fourth Gospel would counter either one.
But his interests are broader. The prologue (1:1-18) of the Gospel of John continues a centuries-long discussion in Judaism regarding how it is possible to speak of a God who is both transcendent and immanent, Wholly Other Creator of the universe and yet intimately involved in every creature and to whom every creature gestures. The words used interchangeably for talking about God as present here, God-for-us, varied by the first century BCE; they included Wisdom, Son, Spirit, and yes, Word (logos).
Drawing deeply in his prologue from biblical passages such as Genesis 1, Sirach 24:1-25, Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-30, and Proverbs 8:22-36, this author makes it clear that Jesus Christ is no less than the incarnation of what the Jewish tradition has called God’s Wisdom, God when God is completely for us, especially as Creator of the universe. God’s Wisdom has been revealed before in Torah, in the Temple, in creation, but never so permanently and perfectly as now, in a particular human being. John’s is a Cosmic Advent.
With apologies to my spiritual father Francis of Assisi and his initiation of the living manger scene, John’s is a magnificent image to which I am personally far more attached than to the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. But John’s vision does present a problem: how does one live a cosmic advent every day? How is it manageable or even helpful? How do we put flesh on that imposing vision that this author has given us?
Some practical activities can help draw our attention to the wonder of the Cosmic Advent. We could look at the stars, really take time to look at the stars, and here I must recognize the contribution of my rescue pup Sasha, for whose needs I stand outside at 11pm every night! We could note the phase of the moon each night and marvel prayerfully in the wondrous structure and processes of the universe that result in what we can see at that moment, and we can marvel prayerfully that the savior whose advent we now celebrate is so much more than that.
But we don’t have to be unceasingly celestial in our gaze to remind ourselves of the glorious interconnectedness and redemption of the universe that Christ reveals (Col 1:15-20). We can at so many moments of the day and night bring our awareness to the “thisness,” as John Duns Scotus and other medieval scholastics would call it (haecceity), of each created being God brings across our paths every day. We can “go small” and practice hospitality to our companions on this planet as best we can. When we do that, we celebrate an unending Advent, as Mary Oliver expresses in her poem “Making the House Ready for the Lord,” which I first encountered in America magazine (Sept. 25, 2006).
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
Still nothing is as shining as it should be
For you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice – it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances– but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
While the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
As I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.