Saturday, December 24, 2011

The God who takes his time

Piero della Francesca, 1470


The God of Jesus Christ is a God who takes his time.

In the aftermath of Adam and Eve's rebellion, God pronounces judgment upon the serpent:

"And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel" (Gen. 3:15).

Then this God takes an incomprehensibly long and to many of us, an upsettingly long, amount time to do something about it.

A bit later he speaks through the prophet Isaiah a promise to his people Israel, which the prophet dutifully writes down.

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; 
Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them...
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; 
And the government will rest on His shoulders.

Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1460
Then this same God takes 700 years to make this promise see the light of day. If we go backwards seven hundred years, we land at the year 1311, the year that the Italian painter Giotto was in Assisi, painting frescoes in the transept area of the Lower Church, a year in which Dante Alighieri scribbled away at the Divine Comedy, Robert the Bruce roamed the lowlands of Scotland and the technique of knitting was being invented. If we go forwards, we arrive at 2711 AD, a year which only science fiction writers have imagined possible.

Our God takes seven hundred years to make good on his promises, and children innumerable are born to mothers and so many sons "are given" to the tribe that people stop counting because of the tedious quality of the ordinariness of it all.

Then the Messiah arrives, at last. As Gary Thomas describes this episode in God's history:

"This is the way of God: long waiting, intense action, followed by long waiting. Decades may come and go before anything seemingly significant takes place. The Gospels testify to a patient God who sometimes takes centuries to set up his move, and who then thinks nothing of sitting on it for another thirty years until everything is just right."

Our God is a God who takes his time, and if he takes his time with Adam and Eve and Israel and the disciples of Jesus, then, alas, he will do no differently with us, with me.

Our friend Margaret Thielman, with a desire to encourage us during our darkest days this past fall, said this:

"Just remember, the nights are long but the years are short."

Jans tot Sint Geertgen, 1490
I've been repeating that statement out loud to myself over the past weeks. She's right, of course, and Phaedra and I have only begun to feel its meaning with Blythe. At the moment, we have more long days and long nights than short years. But we'll get those short years soon enough, and since we're melancholy people I imagine we'll feel bittersweet about the passing of time and wish we could rewind the tape and do a few things over or cherish moments which we treated perfunctorily.

As we bring another year to a close and anticipate the beginning of 2012, I wanted to share this poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote it at Christmas time, in 1944, from a Nazi prison camp. He was 39 years old, an age I now share with him. The last stanza has a "collect" quality to it and can of course be prayed or recited only in faith.

God did not spare Bonhoeffer death. God did not relieve his beloved Son of death. And he will not spare us death or suffering or travail either, as believers around the globe know firsthand, but he will give us the Holy Spirit without measure, to comfort and to encourage us while we travail, even as we wait for the fuller fulfillment of his promises. He also, thank God, gives us each other to bear our waiting together.

God bless you this Christmastide.

I offer this prayer as a prologue to Bonhoeffer's poem.

God of Adam and Eve, God of Abraham, God of our Lord Jesus Christ, you who sometimes take centuries to set up your move, grant us grace today while we wait for you to answer our prayers which we have prayed this year, this past decade perhaps--or our whole life even--and grace again to remain faithful to your calling upon our life, as difficult or inscrutable as it may feel. 

May we not only know afresh the Christ of both manger and cross but also come to love him more deeply, so that we might offer grace to our neighbor in need, whoever he or she may be. This we pray through Christ the lowly babe and exalted king in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.


Michael Pacher, The St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, 1503


Faithfully and quietly surrounded by benevolent powers,
wonderfully guarded and consoled,
thus will I live this day with you
and go forth with you into another year.

Still will the past torment our hearts
Still, heavy burdens of bad times depress us,
Ah, Lord give our startled souls
the grace for which we were created.

And if you pass to us the heavy, the bitter
cup of pain, filled to the brim,
we will accept it, without trembling
from your good and beloved hand.

But if you wish us to rejoice once more
in this world and the brilliance of its sun
then the past too we will remember
and so our entire life will belong to you.

With warmth and light let flame today the candles
that you have brought into our darkness.
If it can be, bring us together once again!
We know your light is shining in the night.

When the silence spreads around us deeply,
let us hear that full sound of the world
stretching out invisibly around us;
let us hear the children's praising song.

Warmly protected by benevolent powers,
with confidence we wait for what may come.
God is with us at evening and at morning
and most certainly at each new day.



Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, 1305

1 comment:

Step Morgan said...

Thank you, David, for offering grace to your neighbor via your words. Already God is answering your prayer. Through scripture, art and the reflection of saints; he has refreshed the heart of at least one reader.

May God bless you as well!

Merry Christmas!