A Word from Elsewhere

The season of Advent signals the beginning of the church year. We begin not with fanfare or flourish, but with silence and longing. In the moments before the dawn of Christmas, the darkness hangs thick like a curtain, obstructing our view of how, or even whether, God acts. 

Precisely when we do not see him, he announces his presence with a word from elsewhere. At Christmas, we not only hear this word, but somehow also touch, taste, and swallow it as is offered to us. Awakened and sustained by this word, we are also made aware that it has been given us to speak. 

Theologian N.T. Wright likens the unfolding narrative of redemptive history begun in scripture and taken up by the church to a Shakespeare play with a missing fifth act. Wright sets up the analogy this way:

"Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost.  The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged.  Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own.  Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves." (The New Testament and the People of God, 140, emphasis in original).

This analogy beckons us to consider what our role might be in the unfolding drama. It infuses our seasons of waiting, once full of despair or boredom, with a sense of anticipation: Where is the story headed? When is our cue? What will we say and do when our moment comes? What words should we rehearse in the meantime?

I like to imagine how gospel texts from the third week of Advent might provide clues about how others have answered these questions:

We wait in the wings as Mary takes the stage with a song. The lights come up. Her lips move. A familiar tune.

The sound originates from somewhere behind or beyond the stage. This is Hannah's song!

The melody swells, pregnant with new meaning sung as a duet. Timeliness and timelessness harmonize. Transfixing.

With the song’s final note echoing, in storms John the Baptist, shoving us aside absent-mindedly as he takes the stage followed by an agitated crowd. Is this entrance or interruption?

A voice comes from the crowd, barely discernible above the clamor: “Who are you?” it asks. John turns on his heel to address the audience. The spotlight settles on him. This must be his soliloquy.

A pause. The silence lengthens. Has he forgotten his lines?

John is frozen. Surely not with fright. But what, then? Concentration? 

We hear a whisper beside us in the darkness. “I am the voice of one,” the voice rasps.

Onstage, John opens his mouth. He’s as likely to breathe fire as to respond to the question.

Again, we hear the eager voice of the figure beside us. “I am the voice of one,” the figure repeats, all but tumbling onto the stage.

John leans forward, as if bracing himself against a stiff wind, which carries the words from offstage.

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” John says.

Relieved, we await our cue.