Advent 3

Heaven Can't Wait. Especially Now.

THE FOUR SUNDAYS in advance of Christmas make up the season of Advent, the “coming” or the “arrival.” The weeks provide a time to prepare spiritually for the two “comings” of Jesus — one that happened and one that is still expected — his birth and his return. Advent emphasizes waiting and anticipation. The candles (which are variously blue, purple and pink, or white) in the wreath represent four themes of hope, love, joy, and peace.

There is, however, an older Advent tradition. The four weeks lifted up theological themes related to endings — death, judgment, heaven, and hell. As such, Advent was a season of penitence and fasting, like a “little Lent.” This view of Advent emerged in the Middle Ages, reaching its zenith of spiritual popularity — perhaps not unsurprisingly — during the Black Death. 

I’ve always found medieval Advent morbid. But, remembering how meaningful the old practice was during a time of sickness and suffering, I wanted to revisit it this year. Pandemic Advent. COVID Advent.

Each week, I look at the traditional themes in new ways, reflecting on them in relation to some of my favorite Advent poetry — the poems of Madeleine L’Engle.

The Third Sunday of Advent’s theme is Heaven.

TWO POEMS by Madeleine L’Engle:

First Coming

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Love’s Incarnate Birth

Observe and contemplate.
Make real. Bring to be.
Because we note the falling tree
The sound is truly heard.
Look! The sunrise! Wait—
It needs us to look, to see,
To hear, and speak the Word.

Observe and contemplate.
The cosmos and our little earth.
Observing, we affirm the worth
Of sun and stars and light unfurled.
So, let us, seeing, celebrate
The glory of Love’s incarnate birth
And sing its joy to all the world.

Observe and contemplate
Make real.  Affirm.  Say Yes,
And in this season sing and bless
Wind, ice, snow; rabbit and bird;
Comet and quark; things small and great.
Oh, observe and joyfully confess
The birth of Love’s most lovely Word.


Advent 3: Heaven

For centuries, church buildings have been tall and narrow with steeples piercing the sky. The vertical architecture symbolized the fundamental structure of Christianity:  God was in heaven, and humankind was here on earth. A gap existed between God and us, and the church served as mediator between the two realms, communicating the word of God down to us and providing a pathway of salvation up to God. In a way, churches have functioned like elevators of divine things, with the top floor, as it were, life’s last trip. If, of course, you were lucky enough to go up and not down.

In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the word “heaven” often means the sky. The Hebrew word for heaven, shamayim, referred to everything in both earth’s atmosphere and outer space. The writers of both the Old and New Testaments generally thought that the universe had three stacked tiers, an underworld, this world, and the heavens. The top tier, the heavens, or the “high place,” was considered God’s habitat, and the Bible occasionally depicts God as seated on a throne there. But heaven was far more than a cosmic throne room. The sky is a sacred space, endowed with divine character, giving light, warmth, wind, and rain to the earth. 

In an interesting theological twist, “heaven” became interchangeable with God in rabbinic tradition; shamayim, without the article, became a regular expression for the name of God. Indeed, there are many places in the Hebrew scriptures where it is difficult to tell if the writer is speaking of the sky or of God! Thus, heaven is both a location in the larger cosmos and a spiritual geography that represents divine attributes and intention. 

In the New Testament, “heaven” most often appears as “the kingdom of heaven,” God’s political and social vision for humanity, an idea that Jesus uses to challenge Rome’s oppressive empire. Jesus’ own prayer, “Thy kingdom come/Thy will be done/on earth it is in heaven,” seeks to align earthy politics and ethics with the divine order of God’s own dwelling place. For Jesus, heaven was an intrusive reality, the ever-present realm of God pressing into human history. Heaven is here-and-now, not there-and-then.  

To speak of heaven, therefore, is another way to speak of the earth. Heaven presents an alternative vision of peace, blessing, and abundance to the world’s violence, oppression, and injustice. Because heaven embodies the sort of virtues that human beings long for, it is depicted as a place of perfection, a paradise. 

Even though Jesus spoke of heaven as immediate, it seems to have eluded the rest of us. In the poems for today, L’Engle writes of the imperfection of history — the “Heavens were unsteady,” and the world shadowed in violence and injustice — as the setting for Jesus’s birth.

I think we made heaven distant — depicting it as far away, unattainable in this life, a blessed reward for faith — because we’ve been disappointed that God’s utopian vision has not come to pass. Jesus said it was here. Yet it remains elusive. Where is it? Especially this year. Where, where, where is anything that even resembles heaven? Maybe Jesus wasn’t saying the kingdom of heaven was truly at hand. Maybe, if it exists at all, it really is in the sky. It certainly isn’t as close as imagined. The best we could get here is a foretaste of heaven, a glimpse of the glory that waits after death. For centuries, we have distanced heaven, placing it beyond reach, impossible to experience in this life. A hope for eternal bliss. Because there’s none here.

But L’Engle refused to locate heaven far off. No, Advent means that Heaven has come to us. Born among us. Heaven is, indeed, here and now:

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

The Light has dawned; the Maker of the Stars is born. It has happened. The kingdom of heaven has come. And it isn’t a state of perfection. Instead, heaven has arrived “to share our grief, to touch our pain.” Heaven is empathy, compassion, love — come to live with us amid the world’s insanity. The dwelling place of God dwells with us.

So what is the problem? She identifies the problem in Love’s Incarnate Birth: our inability to see what has been wrought. Our field of vision fixates on what is wrong, the darkness and evil, death and fear. “Observe and contemplate” is an invitation to view that which is less obvious, widening our sight toward what is in our spiritual peripheral vision. “Make real. Bring to be.” The rising sun, the stars and light, love and joy. Until we behold them — really see them, and answer their dazzling call — we do not truly understand that the event of heaven-come-to-earth surrounds us. Now. Say yes! Yes to the invitation of joy to and in the world. Even while Caesar is still on the throne. Even while death stalks the land.

Behold! Look up! Fear not! I bring you good news of great joy for all the people!

Heavenly joy is an earthly rebellion. The call to another way. We may still yearn for heaven’s fulfillment here and now, but its Light has broken on the horizon. The star beckons us to follow. Don’t wait for heaven. Seize it now. Make heaven real. Bring it to be.

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O unknown God,
whose presence is announced
not among the impressive
but in obscurity;
come, overshadow us now,
and speak to our hidden places;
that, entering your darkness with joy,
we may choose to co-operate with you,
through Jesus Christ.

—Janet Morley

Teach us the true measure of our need
that we may pray
and look
for that coming
with wholehearted
and joyful anticipation,
eager hope,
and a readiness to be changed. Amen.

—Donald Hilton

Salvation means that there is respite from whatever oppresses in the community that hears, and lives, the Gospel. Men and women, slaves and free people, all come together to say, "In our midst, we have a savior." For Jesus to be a savior and for the good news to function as salvific, the Gospel says that we do not need to wait until some far-flung future. . . We see it in the present. . . And we can anticipate it tomorrow.
—Amy-Jill Levine



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The readings in this issue are from Miracle on 10th Street and are used with the blessing of Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis (follow her on Twitter @charlottejv).

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