“Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” – Philippians 3:7-8
Just as in Lent we meditate on the mystery that the death of God is the very spring of new life, in Advent we are invited to consider the paradox that the birth of God is a site of profound loss. The apostle Paul speaks of God’s incarnation as an act of self-emptying. Jesus who was of the very nature of God divested himself of that nature and humbled himself to the position of a slave (Philippians 2). That which is eternal became finite. That which is transcendent became contingent. That which is sovereign became a fragile dependent, an infant.
God in Christ enters a situation which is more tenuous than the normal precarious human life. The gospel according to Matthew highlights this fact setting the birth in the midst of political strife. The holy family is forced to flee to Egypt to escape a mass slaughter. God’s birth is surrounded by death. As the old preacher’s saw goes – the cradle was cut from the same wood as the cross.
Loss is not only a reality for the Christ child, but for all who welcome and receive him. Simeon warns Mary that her son is destined to create controversy and suffer such that a sword will pierce her soul. Joseph invites ridicule and condemnation for marrying a woman who conceives out of marriage. The shepherds and the wise men who attend Jesus’ birth are impoverished and outsiders respectively. They find the baby in a stall with animals because there was no room at the inn.
Throughout scripture we find many examples of an encounter with God being experienced as loss. Jacob wrestles with God at the river Jabbok and limps for the rest of his life (Genesis 32:22-32). Zechariah meets an angel of the Lord in the temple and walks out mute (Luke 1:5-22). Saul encounters the risen savior on the road to Damascus and is struck blind (Acts 9:1-19).
I wonder if we know what we are asking when we invite Jesus into our hearts? Are we inviting loss?
The holidays are a time when we feel absence intensely. Those who have passed on, or simply live far away from us can seem especially distant at this time of year. Some of us will celebrate the birth of Christ or ring in the New Year with melancholy while our awareness of what is missing is heightened. People around us will press us to put on a smile and “get into the holiday spirit” but it may be those whose hearts are breaking who are most in tune with the spirit of the season.
Here is why: the flipside of praying for God to come into our midst is to realize how desperately God’s presence is needed. We only feel the absence of a person we love. Our loneliness, our melancholy, our loss springs from our encounter with God. It is knowing God that makes us long for God more every year. It is meeting God that makes us desire the advent of the Lord. The anguish behind the cry “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” is born in the intimate affection that also prays “Come, Lord Jesus.”