Liturgy commonly employs the practice of “call and response”. I believe that this liturgical practice provides a clue to how we are expected to engage in God’s good world.

The very idea of “call” counters the belief that we are radically independent individuals and to flourish we must do so on our own terms. A call comes from outside of ourselves and invites us to respond. One thinks of Frodo and friends in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Ralph Wood captures this idea well…

‘Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring’ – (2001, New Line Cinema)

“… “these folks – usually against their own wishes – were embarked upon a Quest – a mission whose outcome involved something immensely larger and more important than their own happiness. …Gandalf draws a fundamental distinction between a quest and an adventure. An adventure …is a ‘there-and-back- again’ affair. One undertakes an adventure as a matter of one’s own desire – often from boredom and a lust for excitement. … A Quest by contrast is never a matter of one’s own desire but rather of one’s calling.”

(The Gospel According to Tolkien – p.45)

“Now the word of the Lord came to …” is a familiar phrase in the biblical narrative that consistently reminds us that “God speaks” and that the life of faith requires that we hear. Divine speaking may come when we least expect it or we may have to engage a posture of waiting and watching for the Word to arrive. This is what Advent invites us to do.

“Nativity” – Simone dei Crocifissi (1370)
This delightful painting is likely unfamiliar but it expresses a very gentle rendering of the nativity. It is a narrative work – with deep human sensitivity. See the face a Mary for example and the weary Joseph. A gentle pleasing bovine alongside an exuberant donkey each in their own way taking pleasure in the birth of the child. Off to the right side – sheep grazing and a shepherd looking “sore afraid” as he gazes on the heavenly host praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.

The season of Advent is a time for us to hear and indeed to see – to listen and to watch. We are to hear and see in such a way that we will be able to gain fresh perspective on the landscape of our lives and of our culture.

Advent invites us into a different time – “biblical time” – where the focus diverges significantly from what we find in “secular time”. With the latter the invitation to consume is everywhere usually laced with some form of sentimentality and no end of feel-good outcomes.

N. T. Wright in his little book on Advent with attention to the gospel of Matthew – notes four themes; time to watch, time to repent, time to heal and time to love. These options change the tone of things and pose a challenge to us all.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory the glory as of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

The story of Advent and Christmas is a call to engage our imaginations and consider what might be – to discern how the extraordinary reality of the Incarnation – “…veiled in flesh the Godhead see” alters our perspective on the world and on ourselves. What might it look like to live our lives full of grace and truth?

What we are remembering in this season is a time of the divine breaking into history and the calling of humanity to an alternate Kingdom. Engaging Kingdom values poses unique challenges in our technological society as we try to sort out what faithfulness means. At the very least it will mean a posture of resistance to the powerful trends that characterize our culture and lure us to self indulgence. More positively it is an invitation “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God”.

Advent and Christmas are replete with the presence of the arts as with all celebrations: music and drama, dance and poetry, story and a wide diversity of the culinary arts. And art is one of the ways in which we may respond to the call of the Word made flesh.

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