In the morning, on my daily trip to Copenhagen I have the eastbound sea on my left hand side. Here, at solstice in the wintertime you can watch one of the generously repeated wonders of the Nordic winter. When the sun is rising over the Sound, Øresund, you will see a sequence of fabulous changes. In these short days the astonishing scenery of a new dawn reveals itself. Just before the sun appears its glittering beams will enlighten the shimmering sky. In advance, the day to come announces its arrival throwing light in the sky that creates breathtaking purple, red and orange colours. The night has to give up in front of the new day to come. Even the water of Øresund at daybreak is turned into a mirror of the new day's light. The colours of the sky are mirrored, reflected and doubled through the glimpsing water. So, even the deep sea with its dangers, demons and dreams is dominated by light. Finally, the light of the coming day will conquer night's darkness.
In such Nordic mornings the wonder of the announcement of change uncovers itself right in front of you. Such a sunrise turns to be a miraculous appearance of fragile, gracious gifts. Like heavenly presents generously spread over ‘good people and bad people as well'. The very announcement of the day to come is part of the new day's gift, no matter what the day will bring. No matter if the new day will lead to sorrow and grief or the day will bring joy and gratitude: the announcement itself is a sign of grace, an appearance that evokes gratitude.
The present moment, the time of Advent in church's life is a time of change. Recently the word ‘change' has become quite popular. Nowadays no one can seriously apply for a political leadership without using the word change. It is "Time to change" we were told repeatedly in the last months. No doubt, there are a lot of changes to be made here and now. Changes are needed in our personal life, in our political life and concerning our environment. We have to change. We have to change our attitudes, our points of view and our practices. Still, I wonder if not the change of Advent is something primordial, something quite different from those small changes we may invent and implement in our lives. So it is because Advent deals with ‘things to come'. Advent deals with appearances uncovering the true order of our life. Advent deals with events uncovering reality. Advent deals with something relating to us and to our lives so to say ‘before' we are able to make any changes at all from our point of view. Like the undeserved grace of a day break; it will break through in its own overwhelming right. Our task is to attend its call for response. In such a manner even our small daily wonders and miracles may embrace and renew us; often despite our own doing and thinking. What they turn out to be will finally appear in the light of the real Advent: The Advent witnessed by the church, the Advent witnessed by John the Baptist - the Advent of Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist is the main character of the two texts of this day: There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. The Hebrew name ‘John' means ‘God is gracious'. He, a man carrying such a name - the name ‘God is gracious' - ‘was sent from God' tells the gospel today. The daybreak of the real change, the change somehow witnessed and reflected by all the biblical writers, has this name. The name of a man called ‘God is gracious'!
Maybe we had expected something else. A man called ‘God is angry', for example. Or, maybe, a man called ‘God has sorrow'. Obviously such names would have been utmost relevant. But his name was ‘John'.
Now, I said that this John was the main character of the two texts of the day. This isn't the entire truth. What I said was an oversimplifying statement. This becomes clear when we read through the two small texts today. Here we will find that this person, John the Baptist, repeatedly denies that he himself in any way should be a main character of the story. He just came to ‘witness', to ‘testify', we read. And when he was asked about his own role in the great new things to come he stated again and again: "I am not the man you are looking for! I am not Christ, I am not the Messiah. I am not the prophet."
"I am not!"
So, paradoxically we find that the main character of the text - is not the main character of the text. Today's texts at the surface deal with John - who in his own way substantially says that he is not the central person of the texts in any way. John by neglecting to be the main character himself indirectly points to another person as the central figure.
So, the man called ‘God is gracious' do not identify himself with the advent of Gods grace. John the Baptist just announces the true advent, the divine arrival, before its own coming. Just like the sunbeams will enlighten the sky before day break announcing a new dawn.
John isn't the main character himself, we said. He just points to another person the way Matthias Grünewald has painted so impressively in the Isemheimer Altar. We even notice something stranger: today's texts do not tell by name who the true main character is. We are just offered some reluctant suggestions: "Among you stands one you do not know." And further: "He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie."
In other words: We will have to wait for the name of this ‘unknown' person. We have to wait - even though his name is already known and confessed in all the places where these texts have ever been read, interpreted and preached. His name is also known among us. Still, we will have to wait for the disclosing of this name until the true arrival on the day of the Lord. That will be the day, according to the gospel of Luke (1, 78 f.) when "the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death."
But until then we have to live in the midst, ‘betwixt and between" in the day break waiting for the bright light to come through.
You may ask: Why is it so? Why should we hear about this? Why should we hear about the announcement of the divine arrival again this year? Why tell us about the announcement of the arrival when the arrival already has taken place long time ago?
Why such knowingly shaped vacancy?
A few days ago I attended the performance of Händel's ‘Messiah'; like I do every year. I admit that I love this popular piece of music. I would even admit that I count myself among those who after having heard the many impressive biblical texts sung in beautiful arias finally find me sitting waiting for the great ‘Alleluia' choir in the end. But I also know that the ‘Alleluia' choir would not be the same if it was played somewhere else in the performance. So, the expectations and the joy of partaking in such a concert are related to the very structure and process of the performance. Nothing would be the same year by year if it wasn't repeated again and again in the same ordered structure. Nothing would be the same if we didn't have to walk through the same valleys and deserts before we arrive to the final destination n, the ‘Alleluia'.
Although the biblical texts tell a unique story about God's election, God's covenant and God's reconciliation as a ‘once and for all story', then exactly this story needs to be repeated and processed in a specific structure again and again. So it has to in order to stay the same. We cannot simply drop into the final part, even not into the great ‘Alleluia' if we haven't walked the valleys and deserts before. Finally we cannot celebrate neither Christmas, nor Easter nor Pentecost without the shimmering ‘I am not!' of John the Baptist. To get access to the joy of the feast we are placed in a knowingly shaped vacancy waiting for things to come. The so called year of the church is constructed as a circular repetition running through the year distinguishing Christmas, Ester and Pentecost; each of these feasts has their own specific texts, their textual emphases, liturgies and hymns.
The old church that placed these feasts in the calendar wisely didn't expect the whole story to be represented totally at every moment of the church's life. Soon the old fathers realised that we have to run through different times in order to be acquainted with the core of this matter. There are times for promises, there are times for expectations, there are times for penalty and there are times for fulfilment. Only through repeating progresses, only through structured re-enactments, this unique story of God and his people may embrace us and our lives as the true advent. Thus, the uniqueness and the news of the wide story are represented to us through replications of moments of the past. We are embraced and renewed by this story when we participate in the actual moments in a structured reiteration.
Compared to modern consciousness this may seem strange. In modernity we are used to think that the newness of an event is the decisive quality. ‘New' often is identified with ‘good'. And we may fill our daytime listening to ‘news' that are not really new at all.
A rather different perspective is offered by the life of the church: The true advent, the true newness, the coming of the Lord, the all embracing and gracious reconciliation of God and man, is accessible only through attention to the repeating circles of liturgy and church year. The most important and the most overwhelming news in life - just like the dawn of a new day - will meet me and open up in their repeated coming. That is in their true advent.