This is the fifth reflection in the “Missio Advent” series. Read the rest here.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people.” (Luke 1:68, from the Song of Zechariah)
Visitation is, in simplest terms, a coming from one place to another. When the mercy of God propels a visitation, what is changed by this new Presence? What is brought along in this coming? Scripture tells us of divine visitations stirring fertility in the barren; providing sustenance in the form of bread after famine or manna in the wilderness; probing the psalmist’s heart; offering deliverance from Pharaoh’s army or the way of sin and death. In this season of watchfulness and anticipation, we look for blessing, for revelation, for reorientation toward the God to whom we belong.
God has visited His people (Luke 7:16). God, who is all knowing and ever present, came to us where we live, as One alongside us. Perhaps in part he came in earthly manifestation so we would know that he knows our frame and framework. (This line of thought doesn’t touch, of course, the necessity of the incarnation and sacrifice for our redemption – explorations for another time.)
When we care for others who are far away from us, we want not only to hear from them. We also want to be with them, and to see them in their everyday, given places. A few years ago, I visited my daughter in her apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. I had helped her move into an apartment in Queens the year before, so I could well imagine the tight spaces of a group rental, the street views from the windows, the night sounds in the city that never sleeps. I knew her IKEA furniture that we had put together last round (intimately, bolt and laminate) and the photos she would have arranged around her room. But soon after my visit to that new spot, we were talking on the phone as she scrambled eggs in her tiny kitchen. I could see it all clearly in my mind’s eye, and it was exponentially more satisfying to know what her home looked like in reality, not mere conjecture.
Visitation connotes being with, not just knowing about, and then carrying one and one’s daily life more closely to heart after the visit. Is it too much of a stretch to say that God’s visitation also means that, in his gracious love, he wants to be with us? That he cares for us to perceive his nearness in our earthly, human context?
Considering visitation, my mind goes to presence: that extended visitation that settles in to stay.
During several Advent seasons, our family members took turns finding a “name for Jesus” in Scripture. We’d keep a list for 24 days, each day adding a single word — Shepherd; Scepter; Cornerstone — or phrase — Lamb of God; Prince of Peace; Image of the Invisible God — and its biblical source. It was a simple practice, but one that primed us to see images of Christ all around us, in human roles and the most common natural and handmade objects.
The origins of this family exercise were located in a bleak day during my undergraduate years. It was winter. Exam time? Uncertainty? Shaky friendships? Loneliness? Changes afoot? I don’t remember the reason for my gloom, but I know what I did that day. I walked to the loveliest campus spot I knew, a stone amphitheater nestled on the rim of a forest. There I sat, bereft and alone. Until I looked around me: stone tiers of seats and stage, “You are the Rock”; ivy climbing the surrounding trees, “You are the Vine”; a fallen branch nearby, “You are the Righteous Branch”; sunlight sifting through the oak crowns, “You are the Light”; a dusting of snow, “You cover our sins like this bright snow.” Presence. Gifts of natural beauty from the Lord himself, and names he’s taught us to reveal himself and continue to remind us who he is.
Over a span of 34 years of family life, traditions and practices evolve or slip. Settings vary and there are ever-changing configurations of family at home and far away. Griefs and losses and trauma shift the ground and make each step more arduous. All the more the need to know God’s presence with us, and to trust in his nearness when material realities and the hard trudge would have us conclude otherwise.
The three of us at home now have begun to open the doors of our well- thumbed Advent calendar. The grown-up children who can be with us some of this month will work into the rotation when they arrive. We light an oil lamp, open the day’s door, read a verse behind it. Someone chooses an Advent hymn and we sing or blunder our way through. Several of my children say that Advent is their favorite season of the Church year. It seems it is never long enough to savor all the beautiful hymns to be sung.
This year I noticed Hymn 69, I think for the very first time. (The Hymnal 1982, used in Episcopal worship) It is surely a less familiar, sadly overlooked one, concluding with:
Now comes the way of salvation,
In joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives,
O let salvation dawn!
(Carol Christopher Drake)
(It occurs to me that it is also in joy and terror that the word is borne.)
“God gives himself into our lives.” Nightly by the Advent calendar, we will sing of the coming of Christ in his nativity. Christ the babe is born in humility. We know how the story goes, even while we hold this Child so fondly in our verses and stanzas. We know that later, through his most holy death and resurrection, he will become a servant and a sacrifice for the salvation of the world. And we know that he will come again in glory and to reign in righteousness.
Now is the in-between. We live in the tension of known presence and yet sometimes perceived absence, holding on at once to the “has been” of Christ’s nativity, the “is” of his continual nearness through his spirit, and the “will be” of his coming reign.
“Through the tender mercy of our God, with which the dayspring from on high hath visited us.” The morning star, the light that shines in the still-darkness, brightness following the dense night. “To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. “ (Luke 1:78-9)
Mary Woodiwiss is the mother of seven, mother-in-law of two, and grandmother of one Foreign Service granddaughter who lives too far away for her to sufficiently squeeze on. She has been married to her husband, Ashley, for almost 35 years. She has recently served on her parish church staff as Coordinator of Christian Formation, and is invigorated by various community agency boards and projects. Mary continues to be on the lookout for good work well-done, and community where it may be nurtured or found. On almost any day in a still-too-busy life, she’d rather be gardening.
Photo: Nate Brelsford; Tomas Pukalski