I am away and not at home. I have left behind shopping, decorating, making lists, writing cards, planning. I have not pulled out the six Christmas boxes that usually get opened in the first weeks of December – the mistletoe, the tree lights, the wreathes, the mini-sleighs and stuffed angels and candles set in greenery. I have even left my Advent candle set at home – the three purple candles and the one rose candle – that I would ordinarily be lighting at mealtimes. I now wonder if we will have a Christmas tree this year.
In a way I have truly retreated to a desert. It is quiet here by the sea, where my room opens onto a lawn which meets the beach which slides under a pounding surf. We have moved from the cliffs of northern Maui to the Kohala Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii, a good place to retreat, to rest, read, and write.
I miss all of the hustle and bustle at home. I miss the decorations and the Advent candles. But a new reality has slowly come over me, immersed as I am in the Book of Common Prayer daily offices, the four daily Scripture readings appointed for Advent, and the first verses of John I have determined to memorize. And also, I am immersed in the quiet of this natural world.
For the most part these assigned daily readings are full of Isaiah’s prophesies, morning and evening, and in my mind I can hear his voice, against the roar of the sea, as I turn out my light at night, his cries into the darkness, his prophetic warnings to Israel… “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near… Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord…” (6,7) and then Isaiah’s glorious words of hope… “For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands…” (12).
The Office of Morning Prayer includes the first chapters of Mark, describing Christ’s early ministry. Our Lord Jesus heals and he casts out demons. Crowds follow him, pressing in. As he preaches in a home in Capernaum, “there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door.” Four men who had brought a paralytic to be healed and could not enter, uncovered the roof, broke through, and let him down into the room. Christ forgives his sins because of his faith, then heals his body to show he has the power to forgive. It is one of the most dramatic stories in Scripture. It was one of my favorite as a child, although I didn’t fully understand it at the time.
It was a double healing, one of soul and one of body. This is what Advent teaches us, the miracle of incarnation, our souls wrapped in flesh. In these weeks of waiting we ponder our souls and bodies, knowing they will be separated in death but united once again through the Incarnation: O death were is thy sting, O grave, where is thy victory? (I Corinthians 15:55 )
We walked a mile up the coast today. The dusty path was steep and took us through parched, dry land with twisted and gnarled trees. The sun pounded and I could see a thin strip of sea in the distance. As I gazed at my wide-strapped sandals, I thought it was perhaps not unlike walking along the Sea of Galilee. In some ways I felt closer to those times than sitting by a fire at home, the cold creeping to the windows, the sweet piercing fragrance of Douglas firs, the world of a northern Christmas.
Here I am surrounded by a world of sea and sky, of black lava and parched earth, of breathless breezes, hot sun. It is a beautiful yet harsh natural world, a world gone wrong but a world redeemed by a baby in Bethlehem.
And so I wait and wonder, and hold close to my heart this great miracle of Christmas, our Creator coming to us, becoming one of us. I learn his Word by heart, engrafting him onto my mind and soul:
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth. (John 1:12-14)
Come, Emmanuel, come.