I must confess to a dirty little secret: I don’t like Christmas trees very much. They’re fun when you have children, and the one we will put up this afternoon here at church will be beautiful, decorated very simply with little white lights. But mostly I’d like to leave them growing out in the forest. They’re expensive, work to put up, a mess and bother to take down, and often they seem to me symbols not of Christmas but of the excess of American consumerism. But that’s just my little grump for the holidays.
I do, however, really like Advent wreaths. I like the symbolism of the four candles, the turning of the wheel of the year, the victory of light over darkness in the coming of Jesus the Christ. And I especially like the hole in the middle of Advent wreaths. We notice it particularly with the wreath we have on the east wall behind the Altar here at Holy Cross. The hole in the middle, that empty space, is a kind of window or door opening out to the One Who Is to Come – to the mystery of God beyond us, coming to us, which this season is all about.
A friend put me onto a little book by an English Dominican, Herbert McCabe, God Matters.* Fr. McCabe points out that we tend inevitably to think of God as a person in the same sense that we are persons. Working with the Bible as we do, we can’t help this, because the Bible so often anthropomorphizes God. As my theology professor used to say, while God is at least a person, not a thing, an object, God is ultimately more than a person. God does not exist alongside us human persons, acting separately from us and the rest of creation. God exists and acts in and through creation, in and through us.
If that’s a little hard to get your mind around this early on a cold winter morning, think of what Christmas is celebrating in the birth of Christ. Here is God acting in and through an event in human history: the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. And even after Jesus leaves this earth, God goes on acting in and through us and the rest of creation through the Holy Spirit. So this is all very orthodox. But what McCabe points out is that by recognizing that this is what we’re really talking about when we talk about God, we’re expanding the mystery of God and giving God true freedom and life.
Let me contrast God with that other great figure of the season, Santa Claus. Many of us treat God like Santa Claus. You know, we pray to God to do such and such or bring such and such to fix our lives and make us happy children. We promise God that we’ve been good, or we will be good, so we deserve this. And then, when God doesn’t deliver, we lose our belief in him, just as we lose our belief in Santa Claus. Or at least we give up on any sort of active relationship with God. Well, what Fr. McCabe is saying, in very simple terms, is that God isn’t Santa Claus.
Well, back to the Advent wreath. Suppose we imagine for a moment, as we sit here in our worship space at Holy Cross, that the wreath on our east wall behind the Altar is raised up higher – up so that it encircles the round window high up on the wall. Suppose further that we look through that hole in the wreath out through the window to the sky and the trees and maybe a bird flying by, Jonathan Arvin climbing the tree, the whole world of creation out there.
This is the window of Advent. Through it we are watching, waiting, hoping, praying for the Coming of God in Jesus Christ – that whole miracle of a God who is not just a super-Santa Claus, but a cosmic Being of love and power and freedom and life, working in and through us and all creation. Through this window of Advent we are seeing in a new way, an expanded way. We are not just seeing things from our own little personal perspective – what do I want for Christmas, what would complete my life and make me happy. We are awaiting something – Someone – who is beyond what we can ask or imagine. Who gives new meaning to terms like “complete” and “happy.” Through that window of Advent, the hole in the wreath, we are both looking out and inviting in.
Which brings us to the gospel reading this morning. This is the story, from St. Luke’s gospel, of the Visitation. Like the other beautiful stories that adorn this season – the Annunciation to the Virgin, the birth in the stable, the shepherds, the wise men, the circumcision and naming of Jesus, the Presentation in the temple – this story of the Visitation is another window, a window in this case into the whole mystery of the Gospel, the Good News of this God who works in and through us and creation.
It is the story of the Virgin Mary, full of wonder and not a little fear at the news that the Angel Gabriel has brought her about bearing the Child of God, rushing to share with her cousin, Elizabeth. And Elizabeth has her own wondrous news: that she, in her old age, is pregnant with the child who will become John the Baptist, the forerunner and prophet of the coming of Messiah. We owe (or at least I owe) to feminist theology an understanding of what this story of the Visitation is about. The feminist theologians have given us the term hospitality. Hospitality is the opening our lives, our very being, to receive what is beyond us. So the Visitation is about hospitality – Elizabeth’s hospitality to Mary, of course, but ultimately the hospitality of both women to the working of the Holy Spirit, to God, as contained in these children in their wombs.
And so, circling back to our Advent wreath, what is revealed to us is that the hole in the center of the wreath, the window or door, is about hospitality. Our hospitality to the coming of God – this God who is not less than a person, but so much more than we mortal persons – and God’s hospitality to us, that God would take our flesh, be born in our stable, walk on our earth, suffer for our sins, and share our death, death on our cross. This hospitality of Advent!
And, the final note in this: that there at the very center of Advent hospitality, the center of the window – is the Cross. This works so well here at Holy Cross, because our window above the Altar is intersected with a cross; it has become our symbol, our logo. We look out and God looks in through the Cross, the Holy Cross. But it is true of Christmas. Christmas really anticipates the Cross, for what is born must die. And it is through our death to self that we are raised to the fullness of God. The Cross is the completion of the hospitality of God.
*Herbert McCabe, OP, God Matters (London, New York: Continuum, 2005).