Advent as learning something of God’s own simultaneous ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

ambiguity‘Advent pulls the imagination in two directions. We turn our minds to the universal longing for God that is given voice in the Jewish scriptures, the yearning towards the ‘desire of all nations’; in the cycle of the great Advent antiphons that begin with O Sapientia on 16 December, the phrase come twice, in the sixth and seventh texts: O Rex gentium, ‘O King of nations and their salvation’. Christmas is the moment of recognition, the moment when what we have always secretly known is set out in plain and freshly terms. And at the same time, “Woe unto you who desire the day of the Lord” and “Who may abide the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire” … Christmas is a beauty that is the beginning of terror: the Burning Babe, who has come to cast fire upon the earth, Before his presence, the idols fall and shatter.

In other words, Advent is about the essential ambiguity of our religiousness. We live, as human beings, in an enormous hunger to be spoken to, to be touched, to be judged and loved and absolved. We live – at some level – in the awareness that there are things we cannot do for ourselves. No human being alone can teach himself or herself language; no human being alone can know himself or herself loved. And the whole human race alone cannot assure itself of its worth or interest, its dignity and lovableness, its responsibility. When no reality over against us pronounces a word of judgement or a word a word of affirmation, how do we know we are worth judging? The twentieth century has been in full flight from certain conceptions of personal morality, but what age has ever suffering from so acute an awareness of collective responsibility? Who shall absolve us from the guilt of the Holocaust? Colonialism? The Enlightenment? The failure of the Enlightenment? Who could absolve us from the guilt of a nuclear catastrophe? The appalling moral anxiousness of our age is an oblique recognition that the human being as such waits to hear something; and when we have collectively denied the possibility of hearing something from beyond our corporate culture, we expose ourselves to deep worries about our humanness …

We long to know we are addressed. And this is where the ambiguity comes in: we fantasize about what such an address might be; we project on to the empty space before us the voices we need to hear. Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains a haunting fiction – a story of extra-terrestrial visitation in which the ‘aliens’ turn out to have the ghostly shapes and faces of our lost childhood. The menacing stranger is, after all, only our forgotten innocence. It is a striking secular parody of the Christmas story, and one that points up the questionableness of our desire. What if our longing to hear a word spoken to us from beyond simply generates a loud echo of our need to be told we are all right, we have never fundamentally gone astray, we have never really left an undifferentiated Paradise? …

Our longings remind us of the essential human fact that we are talked and touched into life, and that a human race struggling to do all its talking and touching for itself faces a paralysing unhappiness and anxiety. And these longings are also fraught with the danger of illusion, the making of idols to meet our needs. The Israelites pour their treasures into a mould and out comes the Golden Calf; as if surprised, they cry, “Here is God”, as if they had not themselves determined the shape of the outcome.

“In that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which they made each one for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats.” For the people of God in Jewish scripture, loyalty to the covenant meant above all the forsaking of idols: the task is not to make sense of the world, beginning with unaided human resource, but to let ourselves be given sense purely by the summons of God. This was Israel’s own story: being led out of slavery and given shape and solidarity by the unexpected presence and pressure of God. Israel’s hostility to idols is a measure of the recognition that what I make to meet my needs cannot set me free, cannot give me a new and assured reality. The eyes of the idol are my own, looking back at me; I am still incommunicado …

The Christian, in the Advent season above all, must learn something of God’s own simultaneous “yes” and “no” to all religious aspiration and expectation. God, say the mystics, is innominabile and omninominable, the one for whom no name is adequate, the one of whom all true words speak. Only the newness of a new turn of history, the specific newness of new words, acts and relations, can show the God who will not allow himself to be caught in the circle of ideas alone, and so can show the God who exceeds both the fiercest longing and the profoundest speculation of creatures. Because Advent tells us to look for mystery, absolute grace, and freedom, in a fleshly human face, within the mobile form of our shared history, it brings our idolatry – philosophical and methodological alike – to judgement. Our hunger is met, we are talked and touched into new and everlasting life, our desire is answered; but only insofar as we have lived in an Advent of the religious imagination, struggling to let God be God; casting our idols of silver and gold to the moles and bats, “for fear of the Lord and for the glory of his majesty”, longing simply for our God to show himself as God in the “total and presuppositionless love” of his incarnate speech to us.”’

– Rowan Williams, ‘Advent: A University Sermon’, in Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses. [HT: Kent Eilers]


  1. Love it! “a beauty that is the beginning of terror…And the whole human race alone cannot assure itself of its worth or interest, its dignity and lovableness, its responsibility. When no reality over against us pronounces a word of judgement or a word a word of affirmation, how do we know we are worth judging”. Thanks for sharing these resources… Life is busy.


  2. Thanks, Jason. As a poetic supplement, here is RW’s “Advent Calendar”:

    He will come like last leaf’s fall.
    One night when the November wind
    has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
    wakes choking on the mould,
    the soft shroud’s folding.

    He will come like frost.
    One morning when the shrinking earth
    opens on mist, to find itself
    arrested in the net
    of alien, sword-set beauty.

    He will come like dark.
    One evening when the bursting red
    December sun draws up the sheet
    and penny-masks its eye to yield
    the star-snowed fields of sky.

    He will come, will come,
    will come like crying in the night,
    like blood, like breaking,
    as the earth writhes to toss him free.
    He will come like child.


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