BY HANNAH BARR
Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing:
“Glory to the new-born king!”
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the chapel of a former Carmelite monastery in Cornwall. As it housed an enclosed order, the monastery itself is designed to physically create the set-apartness of the nuns who lived, worshipped and served there for many years.
In the chapel there is a round stained-glass window that is just above the main crucifix, which is itself just above the altar. The window depicts what is beyond the monastery’s walls: rolling hills which lead down to the sea, and, perhaps optimistically for Cornwall, the sun blazing through a blue sky.
As I sat in the chapel, cross-legged on the floor, clothed in my brilliant white alb (prayer robe), my eyes were drawn from the gold cross on the altar, to the large crucifix, and finally to the iridescent window.
Suddenly these words flooded my mind: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; who was, and is, and is to come.”
I don’t know for how long I was in the chapel, saying those words over and over again. I said them with many different intonations, from awe and wonder to praise and adoration, and also to a bit of disbelief. “Holy God? You are holy and yet you’re with me here, in this nondescript place? How are you so holy and yet you’re meeting me here so gently?”
When I was a young Christian, I liked my God with a heavy helping of spectacle. I grew up in the charismatic tradition where God did Big Things, but the catch was he only seemed to do them for a couple of weeks in the year and you had to be at this particular Christian festival in order for him to do them.
One of the things I am (slowly!) learning in my walk with God, and which was really made clear to me as I sat in that chapel, was that God’s glory is for the everyday. It is the quotidian spectacle: the extraordinary permeating the ordinary.
There is a paradox in how God reveals himself to us. He does move in the spectacle, in the holiness so bright it is blinding. But he also moves in the everyday, in the humanly comprehensible. This paradox is made abundantly clear in the carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
God has come in Christ, he is the heaven-born Prince of Peace and yet “mild he lays his glory by”. God is just as much on the throne as he is on the road to meet us, arms flung wide, waiting for us to turn back to him.
In Advent, we wait for the display of the Word made flesh. In many ways it is a Big Thing – shepherds on the backside of a hill are overwhelmed by a heavenly host; magi from far off lands follow a burning star; there is nothing simple about the miracle of birth, not least the miracle of a virgin birth.
But spectacles are like fireworks: beautiful, impressive and finite. If this was all we waited for, longed for in Advent, then what would be the point?
In theology, we talk about the appearance of God as a theophany. Traditionally, it refers to a visible manifestation of God, along the lines of the burning bush and the pillar of cloud and fire. In Isaiah, the prophet says he “saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne” and that the seraphim around him called out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah says, “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips…and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Theophany in this context is spectacle; something so amazing, yet an experience which is frustratingly finite.
In Rembrandt’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’, there is the theophany-spectacle. In his trademark chiaroscuro technique, the Big Thing of the incarnation is illustrated through the dazzling light of the Christ child; light and life to all he brings. In another signature Rembrandt move, he paints himself into the scene as a shepherd kneeling before the baby with his hands clasped in prayer, his back to us. He has positioned himself this way deliberately, so that we can enter into the scene through this figure. We, too, can be before the Son of God.
The incarnation means we can look God in the eye. It is the gift of grace in the theophany of the ordinary; all the magnificence of the spectacle with the permanence of the everyday. In John’s Gospel, we read of the theophany of the Logos come to earth and then shortly afterwards encounter Jesus at the well, offering an ostracised woman the chance to drink.
In Advent we wait for what we have already received: God with us. God is with us. God is with us! It is incredible and miraculous, and a demonstration of divinity so compassionate and merciful and holy it is near-on impossible to comprehend.
And yet, the event we wait for in Advent, the Word becoming flesh, means we can journey through each day with the knowledge of who God is. It is the theophany of the ordinary; all the spectacle of our holy God with all the love of the God who humbled himself to birth in a stable and death on a cross.
On behalf of all of us at Viva, I wish you a very happy Christmas. May you know the everyday joy of the holy God with us.
Photos: Kristine Weilert, Hannah Barr, Josep Castells, National Gallery