It was a long Advent before that first Christmas. A long wait for a faithful few, and an oblivious passing by for most of the world. The world was working, playing, suffering, whilst a few faithful were praying and longing for God to come and… Come and save? Rescue? Many would have thought rescue to be about force and spectacular action, and so it is little wonder that they could not read the signs of the time. God was coming to save, but the shape of salvation was not what the nations expected – or wanted. The shape of salvation was reconciliation, the slow, painful, messy process that brings estranged people, parties, into relation. The world needed reconciliation, to God, and between the people of the earth as individuals, communities and nations. And that could not be done through force or mere power of persuasion. Somehow, reconciliation had to come in ways alien to the powerful and those who believed that strength and violence could solve conflicts. It had to come in ways that started small and touched the heart.
Reconciliation took the world by surprise – even those who were waiting, like Zechariah, because God was ready to come and get God’s hands dirty. After all, who could have imagined this? These perfectly formed, tiny hands, dirty with Mary’s blood and the toil of birth; tiny hands that grabbed fistful of hay as they wriggled out from swaddling clothes in the manger; a tiny hand that would grab Joseph’s finger, rough and callus from its work with wood and the solid things of earth. Hands risking gathering dirt and germs as a baby’s mouth looked for a fist to suck on – infant mortality was the biggest risk to this embryonic reconciliation, followed closely by the madness of King Herod and his fears of losing his own power. Reconciliation is not a clean and tidy business. It is unexpected, embodied, and risky.
Reconciliation started small, when those hands were still hidden in Mary’s womb. In Advent we look forward to birth, but seldom think of the immensity of the God of all creation, the God of all power, shrunk into a slowly developing child in Mary’s womb. Reconciliation was at work already, unseen and unknown to most, burgeoning in unexpected places, in the poor and disregarded places of the world. Reconciliation started long before it could be seen, in bodies and hearts ready to receive God.
Advent calls us to be attentive to the seeds of reconciliation. We are to watch carefully for signs of where God is already at work in the broken places of the world, and where people of goodwill begin to respond to the call to join in with the God who is always ready to get God’s hands dirty. And as we watch and nurture those seeds, within ourselves and those around us, the call is for us, too, to join in, take risks, enter the reality we seek to see transformed, and get our hands dirty.
Reverend Prebendary Dr Isabelle Hamley is a theologian, writer, and broadcaster currently working as Theological Adviser to the House of Bishops in the Church of England, where she was formerly Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. She has previously been a lecturer, parish priest, and university chaplain. Recent publications include God of Justice and Mercy: A Theological Commentary on Judges, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2022, Embracing Justice.
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