‘In Time’ is the title of a beautiful short poem by Seamus Heaney, written just days before he died, and dedicated to his little granddaughter Síofra. Infused with a sense of wonder, from start to finish its three short stanzas shine with love. It looks to the future with hope, but is poignantly aware of human mortality. The poet wants to give the child the very best of gifts: ‘An oratorio’, he writes, ‘would be just the thing for you’.
The poem is framed by an intriguing line composed of just three words: ‘Energy, balance, outbreak’. We are told that it was listening to Bach that inspired the poem, and this line seems to respond directly to that rich musical experience. The final word of the three, ‘outbreak’, is particularly striking. Although it is used often in English to describe something very dangerous, in essence the word denotes a sudden beginning or a sudden, awesome appearance. There is something fresh and new and magnificent about it, something pulsating with a life of its own. Something beyond us and beyond our control. This word demands our total attention and holds it. We are absolutely captivated.
We might use the word ‘outbreak’ in this particular sense to describe the birth of Christ. As with the arrival of every new child, it happened in a moment and it changed everything. But this birth didn’t change just one family or one community. It certainly did do that. But Christ’s birth changes humanity; it changes world history; and ultimately it changes the cosmos. His birth is no small wonder. It is every miracle in one, and it is right at the very heart of things where time intersects with eternity. As the carol puts it, Christ’s birth fulfills the hopes and fears of all the years. His birth is outbreak because God is doing something new and sudden and magnificent. His birth heralds salvation from death; deliverance from destruction; emancipation from disappointment. As the angel said to the shepherds (Luke 2 v 10):
‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.’
For the faithful who were looking to God in hopeful expectation, the Incarnation was, in a very real sense, breakthrough. Christ is the long-promised Saviour foretold for centuries by the Prophets. Micah, for example, had told of one who would break open the way, who would ‘break through the gate’ (Micah 2 v 13). Christ is the Lord: the answer to all of our questions; the response to our deepest desires. This is why Christ’s birth inspires adoration – not just in his family or community – but in choirs of angels and generations of believers through the ages.
The ceramic piece, Adoration, selected for this week’s meditation, was created by Vincent McDonnell, an artist and art instructor from Northern Ireland. Vincent explains that his work has always engaged with portraiture, whether in paint, pencil or, more recently, in mixed media mask-making and ceramics. Adoration is one of a series of ceramic ‘pillars’, each drawing inspiration from a different aspect of prayer. For me, the pillars are reminiscent of the Temple, and speak of worship and devotion. Vincent’s work often incorporates biblical resonances, sometimes in the title, to generate conversations among viewers, direct our gaze towards Scripture, and point, ultimately, to the Gospel.
The people whose stories are woven together into the rich texture of the narrative of the Nativity in Luke’s Gospel – Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna – had placed their hope in God. They worshipped God all of their days, and they were looking for the Christ. Finally, that longed for day of His coming arrived. And it was a breakthrough of a magnitude that none of them could have imagined. For on that day God stepped from eternity into time. Into their time. And all of the hopes they had placed in God, and in His word, came true.
Thinking about this reminded me of St Paul’s great words of encouragement for everyone who puts their hope in Christ:
‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly’.
Hope does not disappoint. This is a wonderful promise. One of the women in Luke’s nativity account was Anna the prophetess. She had placed her hope in God and had been looking to Him expectantly for many years, worshipping Him ‘night and day, fasting and praying’ (Luke 2 v 37). There is some debate about her exact age when she saw the infant Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, but we do know that she was a widow, and that she was at least 84 years old. Seeing Christ the Saviour face to face filled her with joy beyond measure. She couldn’t wait to tell people, and she ‘spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2 v 38).
This Advent and Christmas season, we too can find in Christ the fulfilment of all of our hopes. We too are invited to adore Him. Like Anna, we too can rejoice in His salvation and share His story with the world.
In my Advent Meditation for the First Sunday, the music selected had ancient Celtic roots. For this second Advent Meditation, the style of the very different piece of music I have chosen also has local roots. Written by Northern Irish songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty, and Sandra McCracken, it tells in folksong the story of God’s wonderful breakthrough into Anna’s life, and into each of our lives, in the birth of Christ. This is the first Advent. It also looks ahead in hopeful expectation to the joy and glory of Christ’s second Advent when He will establish justice and peace, and reign in righteousness. The piece begins with a Scots ‘waulking song’. Traditionally, this kind of song was sung by local women hard at work producing textiles. Singing these songs lifted their spirits and helped them to keep on going. This particular waulking song leads into a contemporary lyric, reflecting on Anna’s story, and on our stories too. I hope you find it encouraging as we journey through Advent together.