Advent literally means ‘coming’. Like Christmas. Like food, presents, and family. Like expectations and memories. Like holy days and summer. Like a birth and a baby. In non-literal language, maybe Advent can best be summed up in the words, adapted from Isaac Watts’ carol, prepare in your hearts a room (to receive the Christ Child).
'Heart' in the biblical tradition is an image for the self at its deepest level. For the ancient Hebrews the heart was not simply associated with feelings of love or courage. It was also associated with intellect, volition, and even perception.
What matters is the condition of the heart. One can have a hard heart or a soft heart. A hard heart is also a heart that is closed or shut, a fat heart encrusted in a thick layer, a heart that is proud and puffed up. Or one can have a soft heart, a tender heart, or a heart made of flesh.
A hard heart is associated with sensory malfunction and intellectual incomprehension. A fat heart shuts the eyes, stops the ears, and darkens the mind. A proud heart goes with arrogance, with greed and strife. A hard heart does not know the sacred and has no sense of awe. With hard hearts, we have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear, and minds but do not understand.
A soft heart is associated with being receptive and hospitable – not just to familiar visitors or unfamiliar strangers, but to G/god who comes as both familiar and unfamiliar. Being receptive and hospitable to G/god is also about being aware of, or attuned, to that which often operates outside of normative expectations, or outside of the systems of domination (to use a Marcus Borg phrase). It is about listening for, and hearing the still small voice. God is often found in the small things, the overlooked things, the weak and expendable.
To extend the heart metaphor further, we are today familiar with arteriosclerosis, the hardening of arteries. To have a soft heart, that is not clogged up or hardened, we need as cardiologists tell us to attend to both diet and exercise. So,
‘to prepare in our hearts’ means feeding on good spiritual food, and undertaking good spiritual exercise.
The article I wrote in the Tuesday Edition this week listed ten suggestions of good ‘food’ and ‘exercise’. Here’s four of them:
Do a crazy thing at least once a week. Like wear that outlandish garment in your wardrobe; or at least around the house when nobody is home. Go to a shop that sells wigs, try some on, and laugh at yourself. Better, take a friend with you and laugh together.
Walk barefoot on beaches. Sit down on the beach and feel the sand in your fingers. Make a sandcastle. Let the smell of the ocean waft through you.
Avoid multi-tasking, especially when not at work. Just take the time to be present with your presence, or with others present. Time to be being, not doing.
Splash in puddles, like you’d do as a child. Who cares if you eat filthy and wet? You’re the only adult who can tell you off! When I see an adult splashing playful in a puddle anyone watching invariably has a smile of their face. You are bringing more joy into the world.
There is something about actions like these that soften our hearts. By being a little care-free, a little foolish, a little child-like, a little slower… our hearts somehow become more receptive and hospitable to the serendipity of the sacred, and the child who wants to join us laughing in the wig shop, making sandcastles, or splashing puddles. Our hearts can become pliable, open, and ready to receive a needy stranger that comes weary and pregnant. Hearts like that of the fabled innkeeper of long ago who made room because he’d already made room in his heart.
At Advent we don’t usually hear about the innkeeper. Rather we get a mess of messages about the reasons for the season. Let me explain:
Advent, the coming, refers firstly to the birth of Jesus around 4 BCE. But in writing up that ‘coming’ some 50-80 years later, it got overlaid with theological and political accolades. So, there are two comings here – firstly the historical Jesus and secondly the later projections upon that historical Jesus, which some scholars call the Christ.
In our opening and offertory hymns (Come Thou Redeemer and Come Thou Long Expected Jesus) this morning it is the Christ that features; we sing the praise of a character that the historical Jesus would have been ignorant and probably dismissive of.
But wait, there is a third coming at Advent too. This is the fanciful dream of a triumphant Jesus, crowned and robed in glory, arriving with his armies to restore the fortunes of his beleaguered followers. The traditional Advent readings, like todays, include the ‘woe-the-end-of-the-world-is-coming’ stuff; as well as the “heavenly-saviour-with-retinue-is-about-to-descend stuff. Our last hymn today (Lo He Comes) gives you a sample.
The Church has long struggled with the weakness of the historical Jesus. How come he didn’t restore the kingdom to Israel? How come he prioritized children, the sick, and marginal women? How come he wasn’t interested in power, might, and rule? How come he got himself killed? So, in time this so-called ‘second coming’ (or what I call ‘third coming’) theology was created – with raptures and Armageddon and the whole delusory toy box.
The truth is of course that there is no second or third coming of Jesus. There is only us - you & me & all the other fragiles, wonderfuls, and mixtures who together in trying to follow the way of Jesus constitute, in metaphorical language, the Body of Christ.
The messaging mess of Advent though doesn’t just stop with the three comings. There are also the themes of waiting and preparing. And into that is plonked, completely out of time sequence, John the Baptist - as per our second hymn - and his alleged call to prepare for the coming of the avenging judging King Jesus by telling God what a rotten sinner you are. I can’t help thinking that Jesus must have been a great disappointment to John the Baptist. After all some of Jesus’ best friends were dirty rotten sinners and scoundrels.
Over the centuries of evolving Advent there’s been candles and calendars thrown in, fasting (not really a Presbyterian thing), purple, love, joy, peace, and hope (trying to make sense of a non-sensical season), and - especially nowadays – trying to create some spiritual space to withstand the busyness and buying of Christmas.
Out of all this messaging mix probably the most enduring is prepare, neither Christmas food or presents, nor for a power and might coming, but ‘in your hearts a room’.
Which leads me back to that legendary innkeeper.
I like this character. He doesn’t usually appear in the nativity tableau (although he’s always in our Pageant scripts). Indeed, he’s not even in the Bible. He’s been created to fit with Luke’s story that there was no room in the inn.
As a character he remains nameless. We don’t know anything about his morality or politics or religious piety or sexuality. And we aren’t given any stories about what happened to him afterwards.
We do know he was a businessman. And he was going about his job - serving Bethlehem beverages & brews, renting rooms, and trying to balance demand with capacity – when a woman, her boyfriend, and donkey showed up. (The donkey doesn’t make it into the Bible either).
The woman and her beau present the innkeeper with a problem. He has no room in the inn. ‘Go down the road’ he could have said; should have said. But he didn’t. He saw her need. Maybe her desperation. And his heart softened with compassion for her.
Yes, I know this is all conjecture on my part. The whole Bethlehem episode is a fabrication, a narrative lacking history, but it still grips the imagination of millions. So, let’s keep imagining.
The lesson of the innkeeper is simple – he made room for Mary and Joseph because there was room in his heart for compassion. So, he found room, the stable. He had a soft heart, a tender heart, a compassionate heart, a heart in which there was room for the Christ Child to be born. Well, at least at that moment.
That’s the other thing I would suggest about the innkeeper. He might not have always been soft-hearted. Something might have happened to him, an experience that changed him, a time he or his family had experienced desperate need. Maybe? Maybe not? And he might not have always been soft-hearted afterwards. But at that moment he was.
It’s in the moment that matters. When we get to choose between on the one hand what’s convenient, usual, and expected, and on the other hand what’s inconvenient, unusual, and unexpected. In the moment the innkeeper followed his heart, he made room… and in his stable was born the Christ Child.