I went to see Top Hat on Friday evening to celebrate my husband’s birthday. It was a wonderful show and a real feast for the senses. But I realised a short way in that I was feeling strangely disconnected. Having watched so much singing and dancing on the TV, it didn’t seem real. I felt like a distant observer rather than an engaged participant at a live event. In this regard, I am not alone but a victim of our culture. That is according to two fantastic authors who have influenced my thinking greatly, Gerry Arbuckle and Mike Frost, both of whom I got to hear ‘in the flesh’ last week. Arbuckle talked about our propensity for tourism as consumers and Frost how we excarnate or pare down to the bone our experience of life and community such that they remain superficial and transitory.
So in this season of advent when we celebrate God taking on flesh, becoming so enmeshed in human existence that He shares our vulnerability and must rely on others for His very survival, I am convicted of my own detachment from the beauty and the mess I too have been called to embrace and embody. Even the Christmas story itself has become so familiar that it loses the power to shock and astound. But as I have prepared a service of advent for Kingston University and a prayer room at the YMCA, I have begun to be struck and challenged afresh. Think of poor Zechariah! He and his wife Elizabeth had given up all hope of having a child. But when an angel tells him that she will bear him a son, he is made dumb for his cynicism and disbelief! Or put yourself in the place of Joseph for a moment, promised in marriage to a teenage girl only to discover she is pregnant! What must he have felt and what would have been the reactions of the community around him? Yet having been visited by an angel in a dream, he believes Mary’s account of an immaculate conception and accepts her as his wife. The nativity narrative has been romanticised and sanitised so that the meaning and sheer audacity of God in His intervention in human affairs has been utterly lost.
So how do we recover our wonder at the divine mystery, as well as truly indwell our humanity? Well as my counsellor always says, the first step is to become aware! Having done that I would suggest the next might be to intentionally choose to be present and then not run from the inevitable insecurities that arise. As I am told Rudolph Bahro said, “…be insecure in order to be adventurous.” In this we truly model Christ. There can have been nothing more insecure or adventurous to allow Himself to be born to a Jewish virgin, under Roman occupation, in an animal shelter. As Jesus allowed himself to be emptied out for our sake, so we can face our own emptiness. In so doing, we find space for the real gift of Christmas – Emmanuel, the God who is with us.