Letting Advent Decode Easter

Pic: Elisa Cunningham, Advent, 2012

What if the Christmas story is your key to understanding Easter, like a prologue without which the climax of the play makes no sense? Consider, for example, these few questions…

When Mary is told that she will give birth to the Messiah, how much control does she have over what will happen? She can eat well, get some sleep and maybe give up smoking… but broadly speaking the process will pursue its own sweet course. The birth of Christ will happen in her and to her, and in some measure because of her, but it will not be something done by her.

When Joseph is invited to the party, what does he get to do? Stand by his young fiancée, yes. Love her and protect her and create the best possible future for their child. When it comes to the making of the Christ-child, though, he has even less to do than her. He is more than an observer in this drama, but still very much less than an actor.

Bring in all the other characters we love to portray in our nativity presentations, and the same is true. They all add colour to the scene, but none of them makes Christmas happen.

Why does this matter? Because the message of Christmas is that God will do what God is doing, and that while we can welcome and celebrate his actions, they are achieved independently of our engagement. A world away from Bethlehem, on that first Christmas night, a young Chinese boy was rowing a small boat across the Yangtze river. In a land that would one day become America, two brothers were coming back from a Buffalo hunt, celebrating a good day’s work. Off the South-East coast of Ireland, a Danish sea-captain was securing his craft against the storm that all the omens have been pointing to for days. All these people are as much implicated in the event of the manger as the Shepherds who come down from the hills to witness it. God, their God, has chosen by his own initiative to enter their world and move towards their reconciliation and redemption. Their humanity has become his reality, and their proximity to Judea, or their distance from it, makes no difference.

This is the magical, earth-shattering miracle of Christmas night. That which God enacts in the secret place, that which in his hiddenness the creator of the universe makes real, changes the reality and trajectory of every person on the planet, independently of their knowledge of it.

And we tend to be comfortable with this idea at Christmas. We sing Silent Night by candlelight and dare to believe that this midwinter mystery somehow changes everything. Before this night God was distant from us, a mathematical projection derived from our speculations about infinite perfection. After this night, he is one of us. One with us. A God in our world. And this is not a reward for our good behaviour; a response to our entreaties. This is not the answer to any question we have ever asked. It is his choice. His decision. His initiative, perfectly timed to fit in with his long-term goals for our world.

How is it then, that we make of Easter a ‘Members Only’ event? Why do we make our response to God; our prayers; our repentance; our acceptance, central aspects of the drama? Why are we so slow to pray the prayer of Mary be it done unto me according to thy will?

Would that the angels who harked and heralded for the flock-watching shepherds could visit us again every time we think of the Cross: to bring us the news of great joy that this day, in the city of David, something new has happened that is for us and for all peoples. If only we could say with Mary,

“the Mighty One is holy,
 and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
 to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!”

The truth of course is that Christmas and Easter are two parts of one event, which we call the incarnation, and that this event is entirely, completely, 100% God’s initiative. Both festivals speak of what God has done, not of what we should do. Both change everything — for you, for me and for a young Chinese boy, rowing his boat across the Yangtze river.