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From “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratio” by W.H. Auden

Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

There is a great paradox (multiple, in fact) in the season of Advent. Christians spend four or more weeks ‘preparing’ for Christ’s coming(s). We ‘ready our hearts’ through conviction and repentance for the coming Day of Judgment. And we simultaneously prepare as churches and families to celebrate the unexpected and always surprising first Advent of Christ at Christmas.

I know for many of us Advent can cause great anxiety. How should I prepare for our Lord’s coming? Have I done enough? Should I fast? We then find ourselves with ‘humanity’ in Auden’s poem,

“dreading to find its Father lest it find,
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good.”

The irony is that we fool ourselves into thinking we are actually capable of preparing for the Lord’s coming. But, as we read on the first Sunday of Advent from Isaiah 64:6,

“All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”

In Advent we cannot help but be reminded not only of the darkness “out there”, but also of the darkness in our own hearts.

We are not only incapable of saving ourselves from our individual sins. We also know full-well that inevitable human progress is a myth. Salvation, individual and universal, requires an unmistakable miracle:

“Nothing can save us that is possible,
All who must die demand a miracle.”

The principle paradox of Advent is that Christ’s coming, both what it is (God become man) and what it accomplishes (justice and restoration for a “fallen” world), is (apparently) impossible. This is good news because if it were possible, it could not guarantee what it promises. We cannot bring about Christ’s second coming, just as Israel of old could not bring about his first. The good news of Advent is that God takes it upon himself to bridge the Abyss that stands before us. He comes to us. 

In Advent, we take stock of the darkness, and then thank God that it isn’t up to us to overcome it. We demand a miracle, and God himself has done it. God-in-flesh is the impossible reality in whom we place all of our hope.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Deacon Paul