During an Advent session at Mater Dolorosa Parish in San Francisco, one lady stoutly maintained she hated surprises. During a raffle afterward, she won the turkey!
Such unexpected events help prepare us for Advent, the season of a surprising spirituality. God, who could have become human as a respected philosopher like Plato, a military leader like Alexander the Great or a beautiful queen like Cleopatra, comes instead as a helpless baby. All the beauty and power in the universe becomes vulnerable and dependent. Furthermore, God pitches a tent, not only among us, but in us, as some translations say. What an odd residence for the King of Kings!
As Gaudium et Spes says, God “has in a certain way united himself with each individual. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will and with a human heart he loved” (#22). Advent is meant as a time of preparation for that incarnation event, but how can we prepare for something so impossible to imagine?
One answer lies in the direct interplay between Scripture and our lived experience. It seems as if God always makes an entrance through the door behind us, the place where we weren’t looking. That pattern, also found in the Bible, sensitizes us to look beyond the tried-and-true, socially sanctioned, boring, repetitious rut. As some say, God lurks in the cracks between certainties.
Promise came to the Samaritan woman in a surprising way (John 4:7- 42). She trudged to the well as she had many other times, but there she met a stranger who snagged her attention. His request was preposterous: This guy, without a bucket, wasn’t supposed to use the vessel of a less orthodox Jew! Nor was he supposed to talk with a woman in public. He didn’t make a demand, but suggested a possibility: If only you knew the gift of God.
It’s the kind of tantalizing potential children suspect before Christmas. If only you knew what was in that large box with the intriguing tag. How could the woman at the well resist such a mysterious invitation?
Until then, she’d probably done what she had to do to survive: endless drudgery, reliance on men since she had few rights, enduring the sneers of self-righteous, married-only-once women. The stranger offers her another way, an inner source of vitality that will never dry up or disappoint. He presents God’s life in terms she understands. Who appreciates a fountain more than a desert dweller? She can practically taste fresh drops on her tongue!
Let God be God
Jesus himself isn’t immune to the effects of a long, hot walk. Angels don’t rush in with iced pitchers and shading umbrellas. Like us, he depends on human beings to relieve his human needs. In the architecture of John’s Gospel, the request recurs during the crucifixion: “I thirst” (19:28).
Furthermore, he doesn’t use flowery camouflage, but speaks to the need, simply and directly. As Saint Augustine pointed out, Jesus’ weariness may spring symbolically from his long journey into humankind, with its flaws and evils.
We all function in familiar grooves; it’s how we organize our time. Especially during this super-busy season, various chores compete for our attention, screaming, “Attend to me!” “No, me!” “I’m next!” Like a chorus of toddlers, all those jobs demand time and energy. It’s tempting to strangle those who want us to be still and quiet in Advent prayerfulness.
And yet Scripture scholar Thomas Brodie in The Gospel According to John says the woman at the well was too preoccupied with daily necessities. She had to learn to relax and enjoy God. For people obsessed with responsibility, as many are before Christmas, it’s wondrous relief to let God be God. And one of God’s hallmarks seems to be this propensity to surprise.
In the final judgment scene, both the “sheep” and the “goats” are surprised by the king’s words (Matthew 25:31-46). Apparently what they thought was important wasn’t and vice versa. “You mean that sandwich I made my daughter? That tea I gave the repairman? That’s where you were, God? Not in the church attendance, the solemn committee meetings, the dutiful donations?”
If we aren’t flummoxed enough, one more passage explodes our expectations. We know the tone of Advent readings: Be alert. You never know when God might come. It’s all rather intimidating, and certainly conflicts with the ideal: restful enjoyment of God.
Luke 12:35-40 starts with the same overtone of dread. Jesus tells the disciples to be like servants awaiting the master’s return, ever ready to respond to his knock. It sounds threatening until we notice the details: The master returns from a wedding, a symbol of unity and harmony. We know from the Cana story that the mood of wedding guests hasn’t changed much from then until now: They return flushed, perhaps a bit tipsy, ready to crash happily.
That’s why the master’s action is so startling. He fixes a meal for the servants. Imagine their consternation: trying to rise, uncomfortable being served, upset at the normal order gone askew. They might have expected the whip cracked or a rigid inspection of the household finances. But gradually they relax, enjoy the hot food, the full plates, the refills on wine.
This improbable meal echoes other Gospel dining scenarios which lead to the Last Supper and eventually to our Eucharist. It’s an invitation to outrageous abundance, and the only requirement is hunger. So preparation is done with delight, not dread. Perhaps the master will bring astounding surprises, not punitive doom. No wonder we’d eagerly await his coming. And any image of God that we wouldn’t be drawn to spend all eternity with simply isn’t God.
What may block our way are the same demands that swamped the Samaritan woman: intense, seasonal. Picture them jostling, all contenders for our attention, but ultimately imposters. Someone must muscle them aside if the King is to claim the throne, centrality in our lives. Then, as the Buddhists say, if we think we’ve achieved that, we probably aren’t there yet. Surprise!
Disarming the Heart
One reaction to Jesus mentioned fairly often in the Gospels is astonishment. He so often breaks the mold of how the Messiah ought to be. He certainly disrupted Mary’s routine—even before he was born. At some places in the Middle East, women pregnant before marriage are stoned to death. She faced that possibility—and certain shame. Not all surprises are pleasant; some have the potential for disaster.
But the angel reassures Mary, whose natural response is shock. As Fran Ferder writes in Enter the Story: “A life of fear is not what God has in mind for Mary, or for any of us…Mary and God change her tragedy into a love story of epic proportions. But not right away.”
The last phrase is significant. The vision Isaiah holds up throughout Advent is one of dead stumps flowering—harmony among enemies. If we look at the world scene today, we see how such change comes in slow increments. And yet, as Habakkuk reminds us, “the vision will surely come” (2:3).
We are treated to brief glimpses of the lion and lamb resting together: Father Greg Boyle, S.J., brings warring gang members to cooperate in his Los Angeles Homeboy Industries. Those who once fired bullets at each other now fire text messages. Such dramatic change can happen on a large scale, or when estranged family members reconcile or we welcome less comfortable parts of ourselves. The lion doesn’t sprout fur, nor does the lamb roar: Each animal remains itself—distinct, yet not drowning out the other.
Commenting on the “peaceable kingdom” theme of Advent, a woman who’d watched the pecking order of lions at their watering hole in Africa observed: “The larger ones definitely go first. But once the lion is satisfied, he won’t attack randomly.”
Saint Francis of Assisi knew this, too. When the citizens of Gubbio were terrified by a marauding wolf, he advised: Feed the wolf. So, too, for our inner hungers. If they are satisfied, we can begin the long, slow process of disarming the heart.
Our Advent yearning is not for Christ to come: He already has come in history. We long for our world to be saturated with the Gospel, permeated with Christ’s presence, and for our hearts to become more compassionate. His unpredictability then directs us to embrace events that may disrupt our routines.
Some surprises that should astound us: people’s kind efforts to help us, the discovery of options in a situation that seemed dead-ended, a sympathetic friend in a wildly dysfunctional office, a window of time in a packed schedule, a flash of beauty, a check in the mail or a stimulating conversation in an otherwise empty day.
Hunting for the surprises tucked into each day eventually builds a perennial hope, a stubborn refusal to believe that God brings us anything but ultimate joy. If we know that the story ends happily, why waste time on worry?
What if Advent isn’t an exhausting list of duties, but a marvelous scavenger hunt where we keep discovering tantalizing clues of a good master? What if God shares our delight and high expectation in planning a surprise for a dear friend or child?
What if God’s coming is like that of someone deeply loved, for whom it is sheer joy to bake, clean, shop and decorate? What if all the preparation time vanishes to the enormous relief of seeing and holding that loved one?
“What if’s?” attune us to surprising promises. That’s what Advent is all about.