painful steps so slow...

from Sara Groves' adaptation of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (2008):

You beneath life's crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps so slow;

Look now, for glad and golden hours Come swiftly on the wing; Oh, rest beside the weary road And hear the angels, and hear them sing:

"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men From heaven's all gracious King!" The world in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels, to hear them sing.

Life is not all sunshine and rainbows. It's sorrow, striving, struggling, suffering (and, undoubtedly, other words that start in 'S'). In Romans 8 the apostle Paul seems to think that the world itself is taken up into this struggle: he says that creation is groaning - like from childbirth! - in anticipation of what one day will be but has not yet come to be.

And, in spite of whatever alternative messages we may conjure, this is where we live as well. This groaning awareness of what is not, of what God has left unfinished. This is the first part of what Advent is about, waiting in (sometimes painful) anticipation of what is not yet.

But - and this is a big 'but' - Advent is never celebrated without knowing that Christmas is right around the corner. Though we still live in an unfinished world, we live in a world that is being finished, a world that God has inhabited in a human person. And in a sense he's done so simply to say, "Peace on the earth, goodwill to men / From heaven's all gracious King!"

The world that is still being finished is here in the humility - or humiliation? - of a baby reduced to being born in a filthy barn, really, finally, fully finished. May the scandal of this good news haunt our waiting in the coming weeks; indeed may it haunt our every thought until Christ is born anew in our lives and in our world. And may the materialistic pretensions of this season be undercut by the material reality of what we're celebrating - the Savior of the world being born surrounded by dead grass and animal feces.

Animal feces? I'm pretty sure there's an apt metaphor for much of what we do around Christmastime somewhere in there...