[The following is adapted from a homily I preached at the St Mary's College Carol Service in St Oswald's Church, Durham. I also draw hear from the chapter "The Page-Splitting God Who Rips Sky and Veil" in TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age.]
The Christian celebration of Advent embraces darkness along with the brightness.
Advent means “coming”—it refers to an arrival, to the sudden appearance of Someone on the scene. We cannot appreciate this sudden arrival without some sense of aching and angst. And one of the most concise prayers giving voice to our “Advent angst” can be found in Isaiah 64:1—”Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.”
This is no gentle prayer. This is not a pious petition of respectable spirituality. This is not presentable, calm religion. The prayer “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” is a choking spluttering moan, a gut-wrenching outcry to a God who seems hurtfully silent. This is the raw, brutal cry of a people strapped and bound, desperately casting their eyes to the horizon longing to see Someone coming to their rescue, aching to see Someone rushing to their aid through the mist. “Would you just hurry up and get down here!”
Most of us have probably at some point looked skyward and begged for Someone to hear and show up. Would you just do something, anything? Would you just get me out of this? Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down. And yet our cries have seemed to bounce back from that ironclad sky. The sky feels like a barrier between us and Whoever may be up there.
But Someone is coming.
Advent tells us that Someone has come… and that He is coming back once again. But we cannot celebrate Advent relief without being honest about Advent angst.
We normally turn to the Gospels of Matthew or Luke for the story of Christ’s Advent. I want to direct our attention to the way Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus appeared on the scene:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:9–11, ESV)
We find Jesus here not as a child, but as an adult. We find him as Someone who has come and appeared out of nowhere. He is baptized in the River Jordan, and the Mark uses figurative language to tell us that the sky is suddenly gashed open. At the coming—the Advent—of the Christ, the heavens are punctured. There is a whole above, dangling with edges of tattered sky. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!”
And so he did.
The sky is not the only thing that gets ripped open in Mark’s Gospel. At the end of the story that Greek verb schizo meaning to rip or tear is used to describe what happened in the Temple at the moment of Christ’s death. The Veil, the enormous Curtain, that blockaded the divine presence of God within the inner sanctum of the Temple, the barrier between God and humankind—you could suddenly hear the unstitching of fabric as that veil was ripped in two. And later in Mark’s story, we find that Jesus has left an unpatched hole in the ground. His tomb was found breached and empty.
The Christian celebration of Advent embraces and absorbs the darkness, pain, and angst we all experience, the sense of distance we feel from God, from beauty, from purity. But Advent also urges us to look with faith and notice that there are shards of sky and strips of torn fabric falling to the ground. Advent tells us that Someone has come to stage a Rescue, and release is available for those who turn to the One who has come, and who is coming again. This is a God, a cosmic Lord, who ripped open the sea to save his people of old, and who tears open sky and veil to get to us. This is a God who will suffer no more the barriers, who invites us to come to Him as He has come to us. Come hell or high water, He is on the way and in pursuit.