On the first day of each week of Advent, Seeing the Word will post an illumination paired with an audio reading of the associated Scripture passage. The subsequent days will feature the six movements of visio divina: Listening, Meditating, Seeing, Praying, Contemplating, and Becoming Christ-like.
December 20, 2015 – December 26, 2015
Week Four•Day onE
Listen to what word God has for you.
Week Four•Day two
This story is so familiar that it requires effort to hear it with fresh ears. Beautiful nativity scenes and Christmas card images automatically jump to mind. Because of this familiarity, we risk missing the real impact of the story—what it means for the divine Son of God to put on flesh and enter humanity. Our first picture of Jesus is as this tiny baby, and it is tempting to want to leave him there. In the innocence and familiarity of the account of this event, we may forget that if one is born, one also will die.
We instinctively know that the baby Jesus is the main character. Yet all the participants get equal billing—Joseph, Mary, the angels, the shepherds. We even find ourselves in the cast of characters as this good news of great joy is for everyone, including us. Just as “all the world” is taxed, the news the angel brings is for “all the people.”
We are also reminded that God is in charge; he works even through corrupt governments who disrupt people’s lives just to get their taxes. The Emperor’s decree brings the birth of the Messiah to the town of Bethlehem, fulfilling scripture. God works through the haughty and the humble alike. We can only imagine the discomfort of Mary as she makes this long trek while expecting a child. This reminds us that when we obey God’s calling, we are not promised an easy journey. But we are promised that everything has meaning and purpose according to God’s will.
Week Four•Day three
The world-wide event of taxation reeks of legalism. It starkly contrasts the angel’s world-wide declaration of good news for all the people. In the midst of a human invention, a divine exclamation vibrates in the ears of the universe, reverberating throughout all of history—Jesus Christ is born!
The human decree is bland; the angel’s decree is glorious. The glory of the Lord almost acts as another character in the story. At first, it terrifies us. Why? Is it because the closer we get to the glory of the Lord, the more we see our deficiencies, weaknesses and vulnerability?
The second mention of glory is as praise. We say we are to give glory to God, but God is not dependent on us for his glory. If he has all the glory, which he does, how can we give him more? As C.S. Lewis said, “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”
We do not glorify God for his sake but for ours. We glorify God when we recognize that the only one who is worthy of praise knows our name and seeks us out. When that sinks in, our hearts overflow with joy and hope. I wonder if joy and hope aren’t relatives of glory. Each produces the other and all three are due to and because of God.
Week Four•Day four
My eye is immediately drawn to the shaft of gold in the center of the illumination. It is a beautiful indicator of the glory of the newborn King. On both sides of this golden vertical shaft, heavenly hosts create a horizontal plane, creating the image of a cross. It seems cruel to acknowledge the cross when we are celebrating new life, but they are intrinsically tied together. The ultimate “new life” we experience through Christ requires us to know the full story, from birth to death to resurrection.
I am struck by the prominence of the animals in the scene. The ox is like a black hole that draws my reluctant eye to itself. It seems to mar the glory of the shaft. Yet, could it be that the ox is genuflecting to the manger? My attitude towards its blackness softens as I now see the black ox as the shadow of death bowing to the Christ-child. Could it be that the bull, symbolizing the fake idols we create, is bowing to the only one who deserves to be worshipped?
The donkey and sheep have a prominent place in the scene and obvious ties to many references in scripture. The depiction of the shepherds hardly succumbs to conventional images. But all who peer into the manger have a sense of awe on their face. I’m glad the baby Jesus is not depicted but implied. It leaves us room to focus on the mystery and awe of this human-divine event.
Week Four•Day five
God our Father,
We climb into your lap and feel your wide embrace enfold us. We rest our heads gently on your chest. Your face turns downward so you can kiss the top of our heads. We settle in, feeling peace, feeling safe, feeling known.
Jesus our Savior,
You approach and we fall to our knees. You reach under our bowed heads and touch our chins, lifting our face to meet yours. The radiance of your smile overwhelms us; the love in your eyes melts our fear away. You help us to our feet and wrap us in a tight embrace. Your head leans in as you whisper “I love you” in our ear. We whisper back, “I love you too.”
You permeate our selves. You are our conscience, our advocate, the transformer of our hearts. Without you we cannot praise or glorify for you reveal the truth to our souls. Course through our souls like the blood that courses through our veins.
You are perfect love, perfect community. You have been dancing in perfect harmony for all time. Thank you for inviting humanity into the dance, for leaving a place for us at your table.
As you prepare our hearts for the first coming of Christ, keep us ever mindful of the permanent place he desires to have in the manger of our hearts. May all we do be to your glory and be of service to your people. Amen.
Week Four•Day six
I feel a very real sense of “coming down” and of “coming into.” As I contemplate the gold shaft piercing through the dark night and landing on the gritty earth, I long for that kind of direct connection with the divine—pure, strong and unhindered. I am reminded that the “coming down” of the shaft is not dependent on anything I do. I had nothing to do with creating it or summoning it. I cannot work my way up to it, and I find peace when I realize I don’t have to. God has come to me. All the faces of the people in the illumination are pointed downward, not upward. To find God, I look down into my heart, not up to some faraway heaven. He resides here, now, with us, within us, between us, and among us. Our faces reflect his glory, just as those who behold him in the illumination reflect the warm glow of the manger.
The darkness of night that undoubtedly surrounded the manger also surrounds us, but the light of God has come into the world. The world cannot overcome this light nor does the world understand this light. What an amazing gift to be invited to live in the light of Christ!
Week Four•Day seven
I am challenged to resist falling into the trap of familiarity with this story or any other passage I know well. What has become so familiar that I gloss over it, thinking I already know what it has to say? The Living Word of God is just that—living. Even in the most familiar passages and stories, I can hear a new word from God.
I long to join the angels in their heavenly song, glorifying God. Again, he doesn’t need me to, but I need to; I long to. How do I do that? By carrying his light into a world bathed in darkness. The world is full of judgement and shame. The light of Christ coming into our humanness shatters the notion that we can earn his love. He has come to us. We want to do good works because we recognize this love we’ve been shown, not because we think they will somehow save us.
Let all I do be for the glory of God. Remind me that God is Creator and I am the created; he is the redeemer, I am the redeemed. It cost me nothing but it cost God everything. As I come closer to his light, I see my fallen-ness more clearly. I am humbled as I recognize my need for this gift freely given. How can I judge another? For we all fall short. Glory to God in the highest!
Laurie E. Neill is a pastor at First Lutheran Church in Fargo, ND. She graduated from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN in 2012. Prior to ordination, she worked as a lay pastor at The Lutheran Church of Christ the King in Moorhead, MN. She became “hooked” on The Saint John’s Bible during the Praying with Imagination retreat this past summer.