This Advent season I'm excited to be joining John D. Blase and Win Collier in writing weekly reflections based on a passage from each week's lectionary texts. Every Monday we'll each be posting our own take on the passage at hand and I encourage you to visit their sites as each of us explores the passage from a different angle. This week's reading, in full, is Isaiah 64:1-9.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence –
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil - (Isaiah 64:1-2a)
In the final days of summer, the twins and I played in the grassy field beside our house, chasing, tackling, falling and laughing until, finally, in need of a break, I stretched out on the ground underneath the giant maple tree. The boys, still ready for rough-housing, continued to climb and jump on me.
In an effort to distract them, I told them to lay on their backs.
We three lay in a row looking up at the leaves and glimmers of blue sky beyond.
“Stretch your arms up,” I said, “Can you reach the leaves?”
Six arms expanded upward, but even my long limbs fell short of the task. Lying on our backs we were dwarfed by the world, by the distance between heaven and earth.
“Me can reach 'berry high,” my one boy observed, “but me not reach all the way to the sky.”
The weather was uniformly beautiful during the week I spent as a patient in the psychiatric hospital. Mid-August in Central PA is typically hot, humid and hazy, but that week the air was fresh, almost crisp, and the sky was the brightest, clearest blue you can imagine.
Every day, twice a day, patients who didn’t pose a risk to themselves or others could board the elevator and travel down two floors to a basement room. There a double glass doorway led out to a small, grassy courtyard that bore an uncanny resemblance to a prison yard, complete with a small basketball court and fencing topped with spirals of barbed wire.
Going outside was a privilege, a chance to breathe fresh air, to feel the sun on your face and arms and, equally importantly, to escape the chaos of the unit.
Toward the end of my hospitalization, when the unit itself became most stressful, I treasured those moments in the sun. Most patients sat on benches or paced the small enclosure like restless lions at the zoo, but I felt the earth drawing me like a magnet and finally took to laying flat-out on the green grass, feeling the cool, solid earth beneath me, holding me steady while the sun worked its fingers of light across my back.
The presence of God, biblically speaking, is a force powerful enough to cause the mountains and the earth itself to tremble. When God is on the move the whole earth shakes, the foundations of the world teetering like bowling pins about to topple.
This is not typically how we like to think of God’s movement in our lives, our contemporary god to whom we pray fervently for comfort and safety, for smooth sailing across calm seas.
This summer I felt the earth of my soul move in ways I knew were necessary, but the experience itself was terrifying. Suddenly I recognized a hint of desperation in the Pslamist’s cries, “Where can I flee from your presence, O God?”
There are times in life when our world is so shaken that the only comfort, the only sensible thing to do is to get down low, to kneel, to lay, stretched out on the only solid thing we can find – the earth that was made for us, that holds us through our daily rounds of exultation and defeat.
Lowered from the lofty heights of our own initiative, we’re rendered useless. Lying on our backs we find the invitation to surrender control, to relax, held as we were in birth, prone as we will be in death.
We can reach “berry high” but we cannot touch the sky and, in the assurance of the earth’s embrace our limited potential is not a threat, but a comfort. As Isaiah says, it’s God who must come down among us, God whose fierce strength and determination rends the great divide sending out shock-waves that echo through the very heart of heaven and earth.
Maybe this is exactly what we need – not what we want, but what we need – a good shaking up, the feeling of uncomfortable heat on our backsides, a jolt of change profound enough to break us loose from the sins and ties that bind.
This is where Advent begins, with the trembling, quaking, tearing force of One drawn to us by love. So let us, if we are wise, throw ourselves to the ground, acknowledging the distance, returning to our place in the proper order of things, undone and expectant in anticipation of the God who came down and continues to dwell among us in ways both unsettling and liberating.