“Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting.” – Henri Nouwen
This course is about people in a unique time and space at the time of the birth of Christ. We thank Luke and his Gospel for bring four songs from his Gospel which Paul Gordon-Chandler calls “Songs in Waiting.” Luke’s songs are the songs of Christmas and Advent and center around faith. As such they are timeless.
Each of the four canticles reminds us that God surprises us when we least expect it, usually when we are in the midst of a difficult time. These songs teach us that it is in the midst of the most trying of situations that, more often than not, God surprises us with his overwhelming faithfulness. The entire nativity narrative is a compilation of stories of individuals in immensely discouraging circumstances who were surprised by God and by God’s actions toward them. It is in the greatest hardships of their lives—genuine “wilderness experiences”—that God comes to surprise them.
All through Luke’s nativity narrative his characters are constantly being surprised—both by what God is doing for them and by what God has in store for their lives: Zechariah is literally struck speechless when the angel in the temple tells him he is to have a child, a son who will prepare the way for the Messiah. Mary too gets a big surprise, when she is approached one calm evening by an angel telling her she will be the mother of the Messiah. The shepherds fall to the ground in alarm at the host of angels who crowd the sky around them announcing Christ’s birth. And on one seemingly normal day at the temple, Simeon sees the Christ Child for whom he has been waiting all his life. Luke’s gospel is filled with other surprised characters as well: Joseph, Elizabeth, the wise men, and Anna.
While Advent and Christmas are seasons of surprises, they are also seasons of singing. Gods surprises are nowhere more evident than in the songs Luke shares with us that were sung surrounding the birth of the Christ Child. Perhaps Luke was a music lover, as he chooses to tell us of Christs birth through the medium of song. His nativity narrative includes four canticles that have become some of the most important songs of the Christian faith: the Magnificat, or Song of Mary; the Benedictus, or Song of Zechariah; the Gloria, or Song of the Angels to the Shepherds; and the Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon.
The author of Songs in Waiting, Paul Gordon-Chandler writes:”There is a wonderful Arab proverb that perhaps best captures this thought: ‘The further you go into the desert, the closer you come to God.’ The beauty of wilderness experiences is that they can represent the place where God brings deliverance. That is why the Sinai desert of Egypt had such spiritual significance for the children of Israel throughout the Scriptures: it was where God came repeatedly to their rescue. These ancient Middle Eastern Advent songs remind us that regardless of our life situations, regardless of what we are experiencing now or what we will face in the future, God always desires to overwhelm us with divine faithfulness, surprising us when we expect it least and yet need God most.”
Advent is all about the unexpected arrival of God.
Advent was seen as a time to look both backward and forward: backward, in celebration of the birth of Christ, and forward, with expectation of God s coming to us anew. Thus Advent is a time to celebrate the past and anticipate the future; living in Advent” is about being in a state of readiness for the continual coming of God into our lives.
What does living in a state of “preparedness” really mean? Today we might call it being on the “lookout” for God. It’s about cultivating an eternal preoccupation with the Divine in which we find ourselves always running up the sunbeams to the Sun. It’s about cultivating a sense of wonder as we look for God in all things. Dag Hammarskjold, the late Secretary General of the United Nations and a person of deep faith, was instrumental in focusing on peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. He wrote in his diary, “We die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” The soul of our Christian faith is wonder.
If Advent is about training our eyes to see God’s coming, and preparing our hearts to welcome God, it is essential that we remember that God more often than not chooses to surprise us about the exact nature of the arrival. God is a God of the unexpected, and being alert to the unexpected is fundamental when were on the lookout for God. Flannery O’Connor, the great Catholic novelist, wrote, “From my experience… I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected.”
These stories celebrate the beautiful nature of God plus qualities of love, devotion and sacrifice. We need to renew our ties yearly to these songs and experience a sense of wonder and surprise of these stories and to see how they can provide new meanings in our lives. Let us do so in this course.